With a two-goal lead in his pocket, José Mourinho had a bevy of options ahead of the second leg of Roma's Europa League Round of 16 clash against Real Sociedad. A two-goal lead isn't insurmountable, but that cushion gave Mourinho the luxury of sitting back or going for the jugular early in this evening's match.
And with Paulo Dybala, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Andrea Belotti starting from the word go, Mourinho seemed intent on forcing the issue. While Roma ostensibly lined up in a defensive 5-3-2, with Rick Karsdorp and Leonardo Spinazzola starting out wide, Mourinho's formation had the luxury of morphing into a more attacking 3-4-2-1, with Dybala and Pellegrini doing the heavy lifting in the final third.
Roma didn't break the scoreboard in the early moments, but with a free kick and a corner kick within the first 150 seconds, Mourinho's men looked intent on putting this match to bed early.
The Giallorossi couldn't maintain that frenetic pace for much longer, particularly not after Spinazzola went down with a nasty gash on his leg that produced a lengthy stoppage of play. Still, they nearly drew first blood when Dybala came a deflection away from scoring off an indirect free kick in the 15th minute—this one just missed.
Real Sociedad would mount their first genuine threat in the 22nd minute, forcing a turnover in the Roma defensive third, winning a corner kick in the process. However, in keeping with the theme of the match, the officials blew the play dead for reasons unknown, resulting in another stop-and-start delay, following three yellow cards in the first 17 minutes.
With the match approaching the 30-minute mark, the two sides remained deadlocked, with neither club able to find that final incisive pass in the final third. Of course, with over 70% possession to that point, the lack of goals was more damning for Sociedad, but Roma was doing quite well to close out space on the wings and swarm David Silva the minute he touched the ball.
Despite the two sides combining for only seven shots through 40 minutes, this was a rather cagey affair, with bodies hitting the floor at seemingly every turn. And in the 40th minute, Roma was forced into a change after Karsdorop caught an inadvertent shoulder to the face during an aerial duel, resulting in a bloody nose that forced him off the pitch and out of the game altogether, paving the way for Nicola Zalewski to join the fray.
Roma seemed to catch a break in the 47th minute when Chris Smalling appeared to score off a Dybala corner kick, one that Belotti cleverly redirected. Still, VAR quickly determined that Smalling's elbow guided the ball into the back of the net and summarily dismissed a goal that would surely have seen Roma through to the quarterfinals.
As it stood, the status quo—Roma being up 2-0 on aggregate—held firm even after nearly six minutes of added time to close out the first half.
While Roma was wise to maintain their defense-at-all-costs approach to start the second half, they nearly gave one away in the 47th minute when Alexander Sørloth missed a free header in the six-yard box. And we mean free—there wasn't a Roma defender in sight. It was one of those situations where the player almost had too much time to decide what to do and squandered the opportunity.
With only 10 minutes off the clock in the second half, there wasn't much point in guessing how the second half would unfold. Real was pouring everyone forward while the Giallorossi were scrambling to deny the home club at every turn, with everyone from Belotti to Bryan Cristante laying their bodies on the line to preserve Roma's 2-0 aggregate advantage.
Things got dicey in the 69th minute when Real, on the doorstep of the goal, tested Rui Patricio with a quick snapshot at the near tight post. After making the save, the ball deflected off the crossbar, coming within a whisker of scoring. Patricio scrambled to cover the loose ball before Sociedad could score on the follow-up attempt. Roma dodged another bullet when VAR decided against awarding a penalty after Patricio essentially snatched the ball off the attacker's foot.
Sociedad missed another clear-cut chance in the minute after Igor Zubeldia missed a diving header at the near right post, sparing Roma a nervy finish.
With 15 minutes left on the clock, Mourinho made a like-for-like swap, exchanging Paulo Dybala and Andrea Belotti for Stephan El Shaaraawy and Tammy Abraham, respectively. It was an odd change given the state of the match, but Mourinho likely wanted fresh legs, no matter their apparent role.
And as one would expect, the final quarter-hour of this match featured more Real attempts than you could count, while Roma's backline, which was really all 10 outfield players at this point, continued their strenuous efforts to deny the home club at every turn.
In the end, despite ceding nearly 76% of the ball to Real Sociedad, Roma emerged victorious, securing a spot in the Europa League quarterfinals thanks to their two-nil aggregate blanking of their Spanish adversaries.
In the buildup to this match, we asked whether Mourinho would sit back and absorb Real Sociedad's pressure or hunt for an early go to put the game beyond all doubt. Despite a few early forrays from Roma, the Giallorossi spent most of the match chasing the ball, closing out space, and throwing their bodies in front of shot after shot.
Roma ran themselves ragged defending this lead, and while it wasn't pretty, it worked—and that's all that matters, aesthetics be damned.
No rest for the weary as Roma returns to league action with a massive match against Lazio on Sunday.
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