With his side's domestic affairs nearly settled for the season, José Mourinho found himself in an odd position as he led his seventh-place Roma side onto the pitch at the Renato Dall'Ara in Bologna. Throughout the spring, Mourinho's team has worked tirelessly to secure a spot in the top four and earn an automatic entry into next season's Champions League.
However, after dropping points in four straight league matches, the Giallorossi's domestic ambitions vanished like dust in the wind, leaving the club with only one path to the big dance next season: winning the Europa League. With nothing substantial to play for today in Bologna, Mourinho's lineup selection was made with an eye toward the second leg of Roma's Europa League semifinal against Bayer Leverkusen.
Rather than seeing the usual lineup dotted with names like Paulo Dybala, Tammy Abraham, and Lorenzo Pellegrini, Mourinho gave rare starts to Mile Svilar, Benjamin Tahirovic, and 19-year-old Filippo Missori, who made his professional debut in last week's defeat to Inter Milan. In fact, this was the youngest lineup Mourinho had ever fielded in Serie A.
And as one would expect given the lineup turnover, Roma looked a bit out of sorts in the early moments of today's match, with the forward players trading as many awkward glances as they did passes. Oddly enough (or perhaps not given his recent form), Roger Ibañez, a week-in and week-out starter, made the first blunder of the afternoon, coughing up the ball in midfield and gifting Bologa an early counter-attacking opportunity. Fortunately for Roma, Bryan Cristante made a likely goal-saving tackle before Bologna could advance any closer to Svilar's net.
The opening 15 minutes resembled a late summer friendly. Roma was happy to concede possession to Bologna, focusing more on their defensive shape rather than trying to shake the home side off their moorings. Meanwhile, Bologna struggled to make the most out of their possession, taking their first shot on goal in the 17th minute. Riccardo Orsolini's attempt was saved by Svilar, who did an excellent job following the long-range shot and pushing it over the bar.
Roma's first look at goal came in the 24th minute off a goal kick. After Svilar launched the ball down the right channel, it eventually found its way to Ola Solbakken, who did well to settle the ball, take a touch, and push past the defender. With Belotti trailing the Norwegian through the middle, Solbakken squared the ball to Belotti, who was stonewalled by former Roma keeper Lukasz Skorupski—another frustrating effort from Belotti, who still hasn't registered a league goal with the Giallorossi.
With more possession than they knew what to do with, Bologna continued to test the Roma backline with Orsolini, Mussa Barrow, Joaquin Sosa, and Nicolás Dominguez each firing speculative efforts at Svilar in a ten-minute span. The attempts weren't particularly powerful, but Svilar's performance was impressive as he successfully thwarted each opportunity. His composure and positioning were notably improved from his earlier appearances this season.
While the pace picked up down the stretch, neither club managed to create any clear-cut chances before the halftime whistle blew and headed into the break scoreless.
With neither Mourinho nor Motta making any changes to start the second half, the match picked up right where it left off: Bologna controlling possession with Roma patiently waiting for an opportunity to pounce on the counter-attack.
Mourinho wouldn't wait long before making a change, however. In the 54th minute, The Special One made a triple swap, pulling off Andrea Belotti, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Zeki Celik in favor of Tammy Abraham, Edoardo Bove, and Gianluca Mancini, respectively.
Bove came close to making an immediate impact when he leaped to connect with Nicola Zalewski's cross near the post. However, his timing was off, causing him to miss the attempt. Nevertheless, the ball almost reached Abraham at the opposite post.
Bove's number would be called again moments later when Missori looked for the young Roman at the far left post. While Bove couldn't quite meet the ball this time around, Roma's approach had changed dramatically through the first 15 minutes, trading the passive play for a more aggressive, up-tempo approach.
Motta would respond with a series of changes in the 70th minute, while Mourinho responded in kind, swapping out Solbakken for Lorenzo Pellegrini. With 20 minutes to play, both managers seemed primed to push for a decisive goal before the final whistle.
Mourinho's final substitution would see veteran midfielder Nemanja Matic get some run in place of Tahirovic, who turned in 75 solid minutes in the Giallorossi midfield. And Roma nearly broke the deadlock in the 78th minute when Pellegrini picked out Abraham from deep, playing the English striker into the box for a one-on-one against Skorupski. Unfortunately, the ball took an awkward bounce just as Abraham attempted to settle it, robbing Roma of their best chance of the afternoon.
The Giallorossi came close several minutes later when Gianluca Mancini nearly poked home a loose ball after a scrum at the far right post. However, rather than emerging victorious, Mancini came away bloodied and battered after colliding with the opposition in the fray.
Roma would continue to knock on the door down the stretch. After Zalewski was taken down in the 86th minute, Lorenzo Pellegrini teed up a free kick from roughly 35 yards out, picking out Abraham in the middle of the area. And while Tammy did well to flick the ball toward the goal mouth, Skorupski had it covered, giving the Polish keeper an easy save.
In the end, despite nearly seven minutes of stoppage time, the match ended just as it began: zero-zero.
With Mourinho essentially punting on the league table, we got our first extended look at young players like Mile Svilar, Benjamin Tahirovic, and Filippo Missori, among others. While the result was inconclusive, Roma's defense was relentless, the transition play was well-orchestrated, and Mourinho's men fought till the bitter end.
Considering that this match was nothing more than a weigh station before Thursday's Europa League semifinal against Bayer Leverkusen, you have to be pleased with Roma's effort despite the lack of result. Svilar looked composed in goal, making all the correct reads and handling the ball well, while Tahirovic and Missori seldom looked out of place.
Now that Roma's best and likely only chance of qualifying for the Champions League rests with winning the Europa League, we should expect these kinds of performances in the club's three remaining league matches.
Roma takes their one-goal advantage to Germany on Thursday as they face Bayer Leverkusen in the second and final leg of the Europa League semis.