Off-the-pitch concerns notwithstanding (and we've withstood them for far too long), Roma's task was simple: just win the *%&ing game. On the surface, a home match against middle-of-the-pack Empoli wasn't likely to cause a stir, but with teenaged prodigy Tommaso Baldanzi peaking at the right moment, the Azzurri were riding high in 2023, entering this fixture on the back of a six-match unbeaten streak, including a recent upset over Inter Milan.
Even with his side beset by controversy and poor performances, with a lineup that featured Tammy Abraham, Paulo Dybala, Stephan El Shaarawy, and Lorenzo Pellegrini, José Mourinho had enough talent at his disposal to make light work of Empoli.
And it didn't take long for the scales to tip in Roma's favor...
Roger Ibañez: 2nd Minute (Roma 1, Empoli 0)
In their first attacking move of the match, Stephan El Shaarawy carried the ball deep down the left flank, winning a corner in the process. After that, it was business as usual for Roma: Dybala whips a precision pass into the scrum for one of Roma's giant center-backs to poke home. And this time around, Roger Ibañez was happy to oblige, rising to the occasion, heading the ball off the pitch, and beating Guglielmo Vicario with ease—a feat he nearly repeated two minutes later, only this time his first touch let him down.
But Dybala would turn up moments later, chipping in his second assist in only six minutes.
Tammy Abraham: 6th Minute (Roma 2, Empoli 0)
ROMA HAVE TWO GOALS IN SIX MINUTES.— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 4, 2023
Paulo Dybala already bagged two assists. pic.twitter.com/QrBRvfz63Y
It was wash, rinse, and repeat for Roma here. With Dybala driving the ball into the box, Tammy Abraham met the ball at its apex and deftly headed it towards the opposite post past a diving Vicario to double Roma's lead after only six minutes.
Remarkably Roma wasn't done yet. Taking a slightly different tact, Bryan Cristante bypassed the defense entirely, dropping the ball in Dybala's lap from at least 30 yards out. With defenders draped all over him, Dybala had two options: shake free from the defender and curl the ball back towards the right post or square it to Abraham in the middle. Dybala chose the former, only to see his attempt swerve just wide of the mark, much to Tammy's chagrin, who was pleading with Dybala for the pass.
But, with a 2-0 lead after only 10 minutes, Abraham's complaints were granular; Roma was dominating Empoli and showed no signs of letting up as the match moved past the quarter-hour mark.
Roma continued to flex their muscle in the 20th minute, winning yet another corner. With Abraham down with a knock to his ankle and VAR checking a handball appeal, this attempt was slightly delayed, but in the end, Tammy was okay, while VAR dismissed the handball appeal. And once play resumed, Dybala came excruciatingly close to his third assist of the match after he found Chris Smalling at the opposite post, only to see the English defenders attempt miss the mark.
On the Giallorossi's fifth corner of the match, in only the 23rd minute, Abraham nearly made it three-nil when he forced Vicario into a leaping tip save, with the Empoli keeper barely parrying the ball over the bar. Roma would win its sixth corner immediately after, but, for the first time in the match, Empoli averted disaster, near or otherwise.
Things were going so well for Roma that we even saw Gianluca Mancini overlap Zalewski on the right, whipping a beautiful ball toward the opposite post, only to be denied an assist by a last-ditch intervention from the Empoli defense.
Roma would continue to flirt with a 3-0 lead in the 29th minute after Lorenzo Pellegrini pumped in a free kick from some 30 yards out, finding Abraham in stride. Unfortunately, his attempt went high and wide. Still, it was further proof of Roma's flat-out, no holds barred approach to this match—we haven't seen Roma this direct and this aggressive in months.
The match would slow down a bit after the half-hour mark, with Roma taking their foot off the gas ever so slightly but still looking comfortable in possession and organized at the back, particularly in the 35th minute when Mancini blocked Francesco Caputo's attempt, Empoli's first genuine threat of the evening.
But it came at a cost, as Dybala suffered a knock to his hip/oblique area. While Ola Solbakken was prepared to come on, La Joya decided to soldier on. Empoli would threaten deep in the first half, nearly beating Rui Patricio at the right post off a Baldanzi free kick, but the Portuguese keeper did just enough to alter the attempt to ensure it went wide of the mark.
Empoli shot wide once again in the 47th minute, with Akpa Akpro lashing a right-footer past the post and into the stands, keeping Roma’s clean sheet alive and well. However, despite the late surge from Empoli, the referee's whistle blew after 48 dominant minutes from the men in maroon.
With a two-nil lead in his hands, Mourinho didn't make any changes to start the second half, but one couldn't escape the feeling his club would need a third goal to walk away with three points this evening.
Fortunately, Roma picked up right where they left off: winning a corner and making life hell for Empoli. Only in this instance, it was Pellegrini serving up the ball to El Shaarawy, who relayed it to Dybala for a one-timed effort. Dybala's attempt was quickly saved by Vicario, who then made two successive saves, including one on Abraham inches off the goal line—remarkable stuff from Vicario, who nearly moved to Bayern Munich earlier this season.
Not one, not two but three!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 4, 2023
A huge triple save from Guglielmo Vicario. pic.twitter.com/1rICCYAik7
Sensing time running out, Empoli played with renewed aggression early in the second half, pressing, counter-pressing, and generally being a nuisance to Roma at every turn. While there were a few nervy moments early on, the Giallorossi defense held firm, turning away Empoli's furious attempts at goal.
As the match crept toward the hour mark, Roma began to relent, retreating into a more conservative shell, letting Empoli into the match little by little. It's an act we've seen far too many times before, but for the moment, the Giallorossi held firm.
To counter the looming Empoli threat, Mourinho made his first change of the match in the 69th minute, swapping out Paulo Dybala for Edoardo Bove, giving Roma a little extra grinta for the stretch run.
With the match winding down, Empoli emptied their bench in an effort to scratch something from this match. Roma would counter with a late swap of their own, bringing Zeki Celik in for the final seven minutes in place of Stephan El Shaarawy, who covered a lot of ground tonight, including one likely goal-saving clearance.
Despite four minutes of stoppage time, Roma managed to contain Empoli's manic attempts down the stretch, sealing the win and keeping a clean sheet in the process.
Well, we said it at the outset, didn't we? The only thing that mattered tonight was getting all three points. Whether it was a sensational display of free-flowing football or a nailbiter, Mourinho's men just need to win—simple as. And that's precisely what they did.
Thanks to an impressive flurry early in the match, Roma put Empoli on the backheel before breaking a sweat, and while they let up a bit down the stretch, the Giallorossi were simply too tall, too strong, and too fast for Empoli to make a dent in the score line.
This should quiet the storm for another week.
Roma hits the road to face Lecce next Sunday.
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