In the build-up to tonight's Champions League Quarterfinal, we billed the first leg against Barcelona as both a watershed moment for the club and a tremendous opportunity to upset the European applecart. Simply qualifying for the Champions League was an achievement in and of itself, especially for a club as young as Roma, but whether it was Glasgow City, Paris FC, or Wolfsburg, the Giallorosse seldom, if ever, shrank from the moment.
And with 39,454 fans serenading them with the refrains of Roma, Roma, Roma, as they took the pitch, the moment wasn't lost on anyone. While a steely-eyed Elisa Bartoli led her squad onto the pitch, every so often, the camera would catch Bartoli or Manuela Giugliano or even manager Alessandro Spugna glancing into the stands, soaking up this once-in-a-lifetime event. In fact, the nearly forty-thousand in attendance was a record crowd for women's football in Italy.
The crowd may have had their backs, but staring them in the face were the world-conquering Blaugrana of Barcelona, the seven-time champions of Spain and 2021 Champions League title holders. With an unblemished domestic record, an absurd +93 goal differential, and more stars than you can shake a stick at, Barcelona was unequivocally the best team Roma has ever faced. And it showed.
From the opening whistle to the triple blast at the end, Barcelona had their way with the Giallorosse, passing, moving, and shooting as they saw fit. From Lucy Bronze's darting runs down the flank to Caroline Graham Hansen's wizardry in the wide spaces to Keira Walsh and Aitana Bonmati's dominance in the midfield, the gulf in class between these two clubs was clear.
Given the disparity in talent, Roma had no choice but to sit back and absorb Barcelona's body blows, running themselves ragged as they defended every blade of grass at the Stadio Olimpico. And despite their clear disadvantage, Roma did what few clubs have before them: they held Barcelona in check.
Through the first 30 minutes, Roma was no match for Barcelona, who not only controlled possession but dictated the pace and location of play and encountered very little Roman resistance...until the final third. Led by the unflappable Carina Wenninger, the Giallorosse defense was at their best with their backs against the wall, collapsing on Barcelona striker Asisat Oshoala in the middle of the area, throwing themselves in front of shot after shot, laying their bodies on the line to keep their slim chances of victory alive.
But then, in true Roma Happened fashion, the Giallorosse were jobbed by the match officials, who ignored a blatant foul on Valentina Giacinti in the 34th minute. With the Giallorosse screaming at the official in midfield, Barcelona marched ahead, taking advantage of Roma's one and only slip-up this evening.
Salma Paralluelo: 34th Minute (Roma 0, Barcelona 1)
While Roma managed to race back down the pitch, their haste got the best of them. With Paralluelo receiving the ball at the point of the 18-yard box, Roma defender Elena Linari jumped the gun, trying to intercept the pass before Paralluelo could settle it. But in her exuberance, Linari overran the ball, giving Paralluelo an extra beat to set up the shot, beating Camelia Ceasar at the near post.
Roma managed to stem the tide before halftime but were clearly upset with the official for ignoring the foul on Giacinti moments before the goal. The non-call didn't excuse their momentary lack of focus, but if the foul was called, the play was blown dead, and Paralluello never even glances at goal.
Down a goal and buoyed by the 40,000 fans in the stand, Roma took a different tact in the second half. While they by no means overwhelmed Barcelona, with Andressa Alves and Emilie Haavi inching further and further up the pitch, the Giallorosse were far more aggressive in the second half and nearly caught Barca napping multiple times.
The shots were few and far between, but with Haavi, Andressa, and substitutes Benedetta Glionna and Vicky Losada itching for an equalizer, Roma mounted a credible threat in the second half.
First, there was Giacinti's near miss in the box following a deflected ball, with her shot being narrowly parried over the bar. Next came Andressa Alves, who had a put-back chance of her own flicked over the bar, but this next shot not only would have leveled the match, it would have brought the house down.
With Haavi barreling down the left flank and driving the ball a few yards away from the end-line, the Norwegian winger squared the ball back towards Giacinti in the middle of the area. Rather than taking a contested shot, Giacinti wisely let the ball run through to the edge of the box, where Giugliano was locked and loaded, running up to the ball to unleash hell.
Yet somehow, someway, Barcelona keeper Sandro Paños got her gloves on it, pushing Giugliano's would-be golazo over the bar and ending Roma's comeback hopes. Roma tried valiantly to grab a late equalizer, but with only three minutes tacked onto the end of the match, there simply wasn't enough time to pull off their own Manolas Miracle.
Despite the defeat, Roma can hold their heads high, knowing they played one of the best clubs on the planet as close as humanly possible and could have, were it not for some shoddy officiating, walked away with a draw.
As it stands now, Roma faces the daunting task of overcoming a one-goal deficit at Camp Nou next.
The odds are long, but if we've learned anything about this team, it's this: count them out at your own peril.
Roma runs it back against Barcelona on March 29th. See you then!
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