With only a dozen matches remaining on the 2022-2023 league calendar, Roma has little room for error as they jockey for position in Serie A's top four, vying with clubs like Inter Milan, Lazio, and Atalanta for a place in next season's Champions League. The Giallorossi caught a break earlier this weekend, with all three clubs dropping points, so there was added room for optimism today.
Still, with José Mourinho and Bryan Cristante suspended for this match and Lorenzo Pellegrini and Gianluca Mancini absent from the starting lineup, Roma had their work cut out for them as they welcomed Sassuolo to the Stadio Olimpico Sunday evening.
With so many absences, Mourinho, by proxy, had to make a couple of notable changes to his starting lineup, including Chris Smalling's debut as club captain on the backline, while Edoardo Bove earned a rare start in midfield, allowing Georginio Wijnaldum to slide up into a more attacking position. Roma rounded out the attack with Tammy Abraham and Stephan El Shaarawy at the point of a 3-5-2.
Over the past few weeks, we've lamented about Roma's penchant for slow starts, but with two quick attempts in the first two minutes—a snapshot from El Shaarawy that was blocked by the defense and a one-v-one from Georginio Wijnaldum that was denied by Sassuolo keeper Andrea Consigli—the Giallorossi were aiming to make quick work of their black and green guests.
Roma would continue to hunt for an early goal when, in the 7th minute, Tammy Abraham slipped behind the defense, settled a long ball over the top, and, in one motion, turned and fired a one-time volley at the far post, missing by a matter of inches. The Giallorossi were undoubtedly playing purposefully in the opening 10 minutes; there was no denying that.
But just when it looked like Roma was poised to take control of this match, their penchant for capitulating to inferior sides reared its ugly head again.
Armand Lauriente: 15th Minute (Roma 0, Sassuolo 1)
Armand Laurienté wanders in and scores at the Stadio Olimpico!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) March 12, 2023
The first goal conceded in 2023 at home for Roma. pic.twitter.com/HQXx3tnxzz
Now, the play started off well enough, with Chris Smalling blocking Davide Frattesi's initial attempt and Rui Patricio making a stretched save on the follow-up shot, but Patricio's parried ball fell in the middle of the six, leaving the unmarked Armand Lauriente wide open for a tap-in goal. Patricio did all he could here, but he was hung out to dry with virtually no one marking Lauriente.
But he wasn't done yet...
Armand Lauriente: 18th Minute (Roma 0, Sassuolo 2)
Armand Laurienté has a quick brace!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) March 12, 2023
Roma have conceded twice in 5 minutes. pic.twitter.com/pkQwMLv6Yr
Lauriente followed up that goal with a second strike in the 18th minute, this time burying the ball in the back of the net following a series of clever touches around the area, with Domenico Berardi delivering the key pass to set up the goal. Granted, they got a bit lucky with a few of those redirections, but Roma offered very little opposition here as Sassuolo danced around the area before Lauriente delivered the killing blow.
Down 2-0 with more than two-thirds of the match remaining, Roma had plenty of time to claw their way back into the game, but outside of the opening 10-minute flurry, the Giallorossi weren't providing much punch in attack.
And literally, as I was typing this, Roma cut the lead in half thanks to a remarkable bit of technique from Nicola Zalewski.
Nicola Zalewski: 26th Minute (Roma 1, Sassuolo 2)
Nicola Zalewski makes it 2-1!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) March 12, 2023
The academy product has his first Roma goal and it is game on! pic.twitter.com/gEgsKj39tg
It's hard to believe since we've talked about him so much over the past year, but this was actually Zalewski's first goal for Roma. After settling a looping out-swinging cross from Leonardo Spinazzola, Zalewski cleverly bounced the ball off the pitch, giving it just enough arch to settle into the far corner of the goal, cutting the deficit in half. You'll notice how everyone just kind of craned their necks as they watched this ball float into the back of the net—brilliant piece of skill from Zalewski, whether he meant it or not!
Roma nearly equalized moments later when Wijnaldum got loose in the box but wasn't able to convert a relatively free header at the near left post. Still, credit to the Giallorossi for not hanging their heads after going down two-nil; they were still taking it to Sassuolo.
Unfortunately, Sassuolo was just as eager to grab another goal, making run after run towards Rui Patricio's goal, with Roma academy product Davide Frattesi leading many of the Neroverdi's forward runs, forcing Patricio into a leaping save late in the half as he denied Andrea Pinamonti's stinging effort.
It gets worse for Roma!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) March 12, 2023
Marash Kumbulla is shown a straight red for violent conduct and Domenico Berardi makes it 3-1 right before halftime. pic.twitter.com/p8rsEI74U9
Just when it seemed like Roma would stem the tide before halftime, disaster struck as Sassuolo won a penalty after Domenico Berardi was kicked by Marash Kumbulla as he was lying prone on the pitch. While it required a quick VAR review, Kumbulla was given a straight red, and Berardi summarily buried the penalty attempt, putting Sassuolo up 3-1 at the break.
Down two goals and one man, Mourinho's stand-in Salvatore Foti couldn't afford to wait, making two changes to begin the second half: Paulo Dybala and Rick Karsdorp on in place of Edoardo Bove and Spinazzola.
Dybala, as he does so often, nearly created something out of nothing, whipping a corner into Roger Ibañez, who rose to meet the ball but couldn't quite control his attempt, which sailed over the crossbar before being swallowed whole by the Olimpico running track.
In practically his next touch, Dybala took the more direct route to the goal...
Paulo Dybala: 50th Minute (Roma 2, Sassuolo 3)
PAULO DYBALA SCORES A LEFT FOOTED BEAUTY!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) March 12, 2023
The start Roma wanted! pic.twitter.com/rP2arGhdco
With Dybala and SES sharing the burden in the attack, Dybala initially found El Shaarawy in the left channel. And while, for a moment, it looked like El Shaarawy was primed to cut in and create a shot of his own, he wisely checked the ball back to Dybala, who, with one subtle stroke of his left foot, one-timed the ball into the far post, bringing Roma to within one goal with well over half an hour to play.
Foti would respond with a rather surprising change, bringing the seldom-seen Mady Camara into the match in place of Nemanja Matic, who moments earlier picked up a yellow card. It was unfortunate for Matic, who has really been growing into his own the past few weeks, but this was a chance for Camara to renew the club's faith in him.
The ensuing 10-15 block of action saw Sassuolo continue to try and break the Roma ranks with midfield-splitting passes while the Giallorossi favored a more measured approach, poking and prodding the Sassuolo defense, hoping either El Shaarawy or Dybala could find an inch of space to level the match at three goals apiece.
Roma had a clean look at goal in the 72nd minute when, following another Dybala corner, the ball found its way to Zalewski at the edge of the 18. While he got a clean look at the ball, Zalewski's low, screaming effort was denied by Consigli—but this was awfully close to leveling the game.
But Sassuolo would soon put the match to bed, capitalizing on more Giallorossi disorder.
Andrea Pinamonti: 75th Minute (Roma 2, Sassuolo 4)
Armand Laurienté has been a thorn in Roma's side! He finds Andrea Pinamonti who makes the finish look easy.— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) March 12, 2023
Sassuolo has their fourth! pic.twitter.com/nP5Kg8p5Ao
With 15 minutes plus stoppage remaining, Foti was planning on bringing Cristian Volpato off the bench to chase a late equalizer, but as the young Australian was getting ready to check in, Andrea Pinamonti was sprung into the Roma box and promptly stuck a dagger in the heart of the Olimpico, gently lofting the ball over a splayed out Patricio to put Sassuolo back on top 4-2.
Foti did bring Volpato into the match in the 77th minute in place of Nicola Zalewski, while Jordan Majchrzak made his club debut, replacing the ineffective Tammy Abraham. To their credit, Roma continued to chase after every loose ball and was rewarded for their efforts in stoppage time after Wijnaldum got free in the penalty area, drawing Roma back within one goal in the 94th minute.
But it was too little, too late after Pinamonti effectively put the nail in Roma's coffin, giving Sassuolo their first-ever victory over Roma at the Olimpico.
Whether it was by plan or providence, with nearly everything falling in Roma’s favor this weekend and the club entering this fixture without several key faces, this was practically a fait accompli. There was simply no way Roma was going to win this match and move into second place. They seemingly always fall on their faces in moments like these.
Roma will look to advance to the Europa League quarterfinals when they visit Real Sociedad on Thursday for the second leg of their Round of 16 clash.