With only one victory in their past six matches, Roma's recent run of form hasn't exactly been dripping with class. Beset by injuries, the Giallorossi have struggled mightily this spring, slipping down to sixth place on the Serie A table. With their domestic ambitions on ice, José Mourinho’s men had one arrow left in their quiver: the Europa League.
Fresh off a 1-0 win in the first leg of their semifinal clash against Bayer Leverkusen, Roma's task today was simple: preserve that one-goal lead, book a ticket to the finale in Budapest, and, with a little luck, win the damn thing and secure a spot in next season's Champions League.
Unfortunately for Mourinho, luck was missing from his lineup selection, as Paulo Dybala was among several regulars not healthy enough to start tonight's critical fixture. With Dybala riding the pine, The Special One relied on Lorenzo Pellegrini, Tammy Abraham, and Andrea Belotti to lead the attack, with Nemanja Matic and Edoardo Bove manning the midfield, while Zeki Celik, Leonardo Spinazzola, Bryan Cristante, Roger Ibañez, and Gianluca Mancini filled out the back line ahead of Rui Patricio in goal.
While Roma had every reason to sit back and defend from the opening whistle onward, the Giallorossi created the game's first chance in the second minute when Pellegrini chased down a loose ball at the edge of the box, firing just wide of the left post from 20 yards out. It didn't trouble the keeper, but it was an encouraging sign. However, as it turns out, this would be the club's only attempt on goal—literally.
And as one would expect, Leverkusen matched Roma's early intensity, beat for beat, nearly ripping open the match in the 8th minute when Ibañez miss-timed a swipe at the ball, giving the hosts a numerical advantage in the box. While Ibañez did well to scramble back into position, he was bailed out by Pellegrini, who eventually stripped the ball from Bayer in the area, quickly hoofing the ball up the pitch and out of harm's way.
Bayer continued their frenetic pace as the match cruised past the 10th minute, flooding the neutral zones, forcing turnovers, and breaking on the counterattack at a moment's notice. And in the 12th minute, Xabi Alonso's midfield nearly found its moment, springing Moussa Diaby down the right flank with nary a white shirt in sight. With only one man to beat, Diaby unleashed a cracking effort from the right edge of the box, striking the post and watching in dismay as his shot sailed out of bounds.
The match would eventually settle into a more gentle pace, with each side trading free kicks and play halted by multiple knocks, giving the match a much-needed breather. While they weren't storming up and down the pitch like thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs, Bayer was peppering Patricio with shot after shot, firing eight attempts at the Portuguese keeper through the first 30 minutes.
With Alonso's foot firmly on the gas, Mourinho's men had no choice but to defend like their hair was on fire, scrambling to cover every seam and corral every loose ball. So tilted was the pitch Roma hadn't managed an actual attempt on goal since Pellegrini's opening salvo in the second minute.
Things took a turn for the worse in the 34th minute when Spinazzola was forced to leave the game due to injury, with Nicola Zalewski hopping off the bench to take his place. And while it would have been nice if Zalewski's fresh legs inspired Roma's attack, the Giallorossi had no choice but to sit back and absorb as Bayer crashed into the Roma box like so many waves on a beach.
Despite ceding nearly three-fourths of the possession to Bayer and facing 12 shots on goal, Roma’s defense held firm in the first half, preserving their precious one-goal aggregate advantage as the clubs headed into halftime.
With a one-goal lead to protect and a spot in the finale on the line, Mourinho left nothing to chance, swapping out an ineffective Andrea Belotti for midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum. While Belotti's pressing was missed, Roma needed all the muscle they could manage in midfield as they looked to preserve their lead.
Once the whistle sounded to open the new half, Roma picked up right where they left off: frantically defending every blade of grass as if they were facing Lionel Messi's legendary Barcelona sides. With Wijnaldum in tow, Roma's midfield did well to frustrate Bayer in the middle of the park, with Matic and Bove joining forced with the Dutchman to inject a bit of dis-ease into Bayer's attacking schemes.
Despite seeing so little of the ball, Roma came excruciatingly close to grabbing a goal in the 58th minute when Pellegrini whipped in a free kick from nearly 30 yards out. With Mancini tracking the ball and likely to get a free look at it, Mourinho's mouth was likely salivating, but a last-ditch intervention from the defense saved Bayer's bacon.
Propelled by a raucous crowd at the Bay Arena, Bayer continued to press the issue as the match wore on, committing more and more men to the attack in a desperate attempt to rattle Rui Patricio and the Roma defense. Whether they took the direct route, played on the flanks, or relied on setpieces, Bayer simply couldn't find the key to Mourinho’s defense.
Bayer's best chance came in the 66th minute when Diaby fired a low shot toward the right post, forcing Patricio to splay out and use every inch of his 6’2” frame to make the save, one that almost skipped over the edge of his glove as he went parallel to the ground to make the stop. In the end, Patricio managed to recover, denying Bayer once again.
With Alonso making a pair of attacking changes late in the match, Mourinho responded by going defensive, swapping out Celik for Chris Smalling, giving Roma another stout defender to endure the final 15 minutes plus stoppage.
Roma continued their hard scrambling defense, even as Bayer's shot total approached 20 attempts, but were dealt a minor blow when Pellegrini went down with a lower leg issue. While he returned to the pitch, he was noticeably hobbled as Roma continued to chase Bayer around the attacking third.
Thanks to a parade of injuries, setpieces, and good old fashion time-wasting, the officials tacked on eight additional minutes to the end of this match, setting the stage for a fraught finish.
Despite those eight additional minutes nearly becoming a full 10 minutes of stoppage time, Roma's defense held firm and when the final whistle finally sounded, the Giallorossi stormed the pitch as Mourinho triumphantly shook his fists, gesturing towards Roma's away supporters in the stand.
One shot on goal, a scintilla of possession, and defending every inch of the pitch.— Chiesa di Totti (@chiesaditotti) May 18, 2023
This match was made for Mourinho.
Before Roma tries to land the Europa League title, they have a few more loose ends in the league to tie up, starting with Monday's fixture against Salernitana.
Man of the match?
This poll is closed