Down Paulo Dybala and Lorenzo Pellegrini through injury, José Mourinho was nearly dealt another blow when Tammy Abraham was listed as questionable ahead of today's fixture against Hellas Verona. Thankfully, the English striker felt well enough to suit up for this Round 23 fixture; down his captain and best player, Mourinho had to quickly pivot his plans for this evening's match at the Stadio Olimpico.
With Pellegrini out, Mourinho turned to another Roman, young midfielder Edoardo Bove, who made his second league start today. And while he can't hold a candle to Dybala, Roma fans got their first full look at winter signing Ola Solbakken, who ostensibly filled in for La Joya in support of Abraham up top. Today's match also saw the return of Rick Karsdorp to the starting lineup, a first since his falling out with Mourinho in November.
Despite the patchwork lineup, Roma displayed impressive fluidity in their first attacking move. With Edoardo Bove breaking up play on the left side of the pitch, the young midfielder started a four-teach sequence that nearly sent Solbakken through to the goal, only to be let down by a heavy final pass from Stephan El Shaarawy.
After several minutes of clutching and grabbing, the match's first chance saw Roma win a free kick at the right edge of the area. With their normal spot kit tackers, Pellegrini and Dybala, out, the Giallorossi turned to Solbakken, who tried to go under the leaping wall—not the sharpest attempt, but he did win a corner.
While it didn't threaten the Verona goal, the ensuing corner did leave Roma bruised and battered. After initially going down with an apparent knock to the shin, Tammy Abraham soon suffered additional insult to that injury after he was inadvertently kicked in the face by Gianluca Mancini, leaving the Roma striker on the ground for several minutes before making way for Andrea Belotti.
Play finally resumed in the 16th minute, with Roma now led by a Belotti-El Shaarawy-Solbakken frontline. Despite having three straight-ahead runners at their disposal, Roma remained cautious in their approach, gently poking and prodding the Verona backline rather than trying to break through its ranks.
El Shaarawy nearly made me eat those words in the 20th minute when he went on a charging run through the heart of the defense. Pulling the Verona backline off its moorings, El Shaarawy gradually drifted to his right, creating a tiny pocket of space deep on the right for Solbakeen to slip into. Still, the defense held firm enough, swallowing Solbakken whole as El Shaarawy played the final ball into the box.
Despite some early positive signs, neither club was exactly putting a new spin on attacking football. Through the first 30 minutes, Roma and Verona combined for only five attempts on goal, with only two of those efforts going on target. The opening half-hour featured plenty of running, jockeying for position, and nice looks but very little to show for those efforts.
And that's how it went for the ensuing 10 to 15 minutes. Despite the raucous home crowd and superior talent at their disposal, Roma couldn't break through the Verona defense, who were doing well to collapse and contract around the edges of the 18 any time Roma came knocking.
But the Giallorossi would finally get their breakthrough, thanks to their surprise starter.
Ola Solbakken: 45th Minute (Roma 1, Verona 0)
Ola Solbakken scores his first goal for Roma and has a knee slide to match! pic.twitter.com/jBGSObOKaT— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 19, 2023
This was precisely what the doctor ordered for a team struggling in the run of play: a five-touch move involving the midfield, defense, and attack. This goal requires multiple viewings to appreciate its true genius. You'll notice how Spinazzola starts the sequence by slowly dribbling down the left channel, occupying two defenders in the process, before he shuffles it back to Bove in the very pocket of space he just created.
From there, Bove essentially resets the play by finding Cristante at the point. Cristante then one-touches the ball back to Spinazzola, who, by that point, had wheeled all the way back to the middle of the area. After receiving the ball from Cristante, Spinazzola played a Totti-esque back-heel into the box for Solbakken. From there, Ola ran onto the ball before lashing it in the back of the net with a lovely left-footed strike.
Roma would play out the string in the first half, heading into the dressing room with a hard-fought one-nil lead in their pocket.
Buoyed by Solbakken's goal and fresh off a rather fluid 45 minutes of football, Roma came roaring out of the tunnel to start the second half. Unfortunately, that esprit de corps was met by more clutching, grabbing, and time-wasting Verona defenders, who were all too happy to throttle Roma's momentum by floating the laws of the game.
The two sides would trade forward runs for the ensuing 15 minutes, but as the match crept towards the hour-mark, Roma's one-nil lead, though tenuous at times, held firm. In an effort to shake things up, Verona would make a double change just shy of the 60th minute, bringing in midfielder Darko Lazovic and young Argentine forward Adolfo Gaich into the mix.
Verona would knock on the door in the 64th minute, throwing the Roma defense into chaos with a series of direct passes (and a few check-backs) into the box. Despite seemingly being off-kilter, Roma turned away Josh Doig's final attempt and did well to deny Verona on the ensuing corner kick.
Still, as the adage says, nothing is as safe as a one-goal lead, and Verona was doing just enough to plant seeds of doubt into the minds of Roma fans the world over. To quell the mounting Verona threat, Mourinho went to the bench in the 70th minute, bringing a pair of wing-backs into the fray: Nicola Zalewski and Zeki Celik, who came on for Ola Solbakken and Rick Karsdorp, respectively.
With 15 minutes left to play, Roma's mission was clear: be judicious with the ball, take the chances as they come, and protect the lead at all costs. Mourinho's final change would see El Shaarawy make way for Georginio Wijnaldum in the 87th minute, giving Roma extra muscle to close out the match.
And close it they did...
Despite mustering only nine attempts on goal, there were plenty of positives to take from this match. From El Shaarawy's hard runs through the middle to Belotti's impressive hold-up play to a resolute defensive effort to Solbakken's debut goal, Roma, despite not overwhelming Verona, beat them when and where it mattered most.
While a solid two or three-nil win would have Roma fans thumping their chests, today's results were a testament to the club's depth and their ability to close out a game in true Mourinho fashion: eschewing possession in favor of a flexible defensive shell while waiting patiently for opportunities in the attacking end.
Getting Solbakken off the ground should give Mourinho another useful toy as he seeks to make his offense less dependent on Paulo Dybala. As it stands now, Roma is back in the thick of the Champions League chase, sitting in third place with 44 points, level with AC Milan.
Roma runs it back against Salzburg in the Europe League Knockout Round Playoffs at the Olimpico on Thursday the 23rd.
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