It just wouldn't be a Roma match if the Giallorossi didn't start the new season at a disadvantage. Down Paulo Dybala, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and even José Mourinho thanks to suspensions at the end of last season, a short-staffed Roma, led by Bruno Conti, hosted Salernitana at the Stadio Olimpico in what we can already consider a must-win match.
Down their captain and best player, Conti/Mourinho gave debuts to new signees Houssem Aouar and Rasmus Kristensen, who got the nod at right wing-back over Rick Karsdorp. But the big story was up top. With the club still haggling over Santos forward Marcos Leonardo and Atalanta striker Duvan Zapata, Conti/Mourinho had no choice but to rely on Andrea Belotti, who was joined by Stephan El Shaarawy.
But none of the transfer drama mattered when Gianluca Mancini led the club onto the sun-soaked pitch, serenaded by a jam-packed Stadio Olimpico. And after a moment of silence for Carlo Mazzone, followed by a standing ovation, the 2023-2024 season officially began for José Mourinho's men.
The match began with Salernitana pressing Roma high up the pitch, forcing Rui Patricio into a few nervy touches early in the match. Down Dybala and Pellegrini, Roma's midfield struggled to break this early pressure, resulting in a rather sputtering start for the Giallorossi.
But Andrea Belotti nearly brought the house down in the 10th minute when he settled a lovely chipped ball from Bryan Cristante, reaching high to cradle the pass before slotting it past Guillermo Ochoa, sending the Olimpico into hysterics. Unfortunately, after a quick VAR appeal, Belotti was judged offside, negating a goal he'd been craving for nearly a year.
See for yourself. Was he offside?
After a VAR check, Andrea Belotti's goal does not stand!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 20, 2023
The first touch was something else though. pic.twitter.com/iyRbeSy78z
Deflated but not wholly depressed, Roma soldiered on, with Belotti creating Roma's next chance as he charged through the Salernitana defense, playing El Shaarawy into the box. But, once again, the timing was not on Roma's side, as Belotti's ball ran just a bit too far for SES.
But you can only keep a good man down so long. After seeing this first goal denied by VAR and his would-be assist run a bit long, Belotti finally got the moment he deserved.
Andrea Belotti: 17th Minute (Roma 1, Salernitana 0)
This one counts!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 20, 2023
Andrea Belotti gets his goal in style! pic.twitter.com/uqZWfjIiJ7
In a near carbon copy of his disallowed goal, Belotti once again settled a long, arching ball (this time from Diego Llorente) with his right foot, taking a clever touch off his thigh to avoid the defender before beating Ochoa at the near post. And for the first time in league play, we finally heard the "Andrea....Belotti" refrain bellowing from every corner of the Olimpico.
Not content with a one-goal lead, Roma continued to press the issue, keeping Ochoa on his toes after Houssem Aouar and Bryan Cristante nearly made magic off successive setpieces in the 23rd minute. With the match taking a cooling break in the 26th minute, Roma had effectively erased their earlier frustration to take control of this match midway through the first half.
The Giallorossi would continue to knock on the setpiece door as the match moved past the half-hour mark. With Aouar serving up another deep in-swinger towards the far post, Chris Smalling rose high to meet it, steering the ball at an unsuspecting Ochoa, but the Salernitana keeper was up to the task. But in his haste, Ochoa left a juicy rebound on the goal line for Mancini, who couldn't gather himself quickly enough to take advantage, leaving the scoreline at 1-0.
And Roma would soon rue that miss. Antonio Candreva, a perpetual thorn in Roma's side, leveled the match in the 36th minute, working a give-and-go with Federico Fazio from some thirty yards out, taking advantage of some cavernous holes in the Giallorossi defense before rocketing the ball past a hapless Rui Patricio.
Antonio Candreva: 36th Minute (Roma 1, Salernitana 1)
36-year-old Antonio Candreva nearly takes the net off!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 20, 2023
Salernitana are back in this one. pic.twitter.com/4LQX5qQLaa
And that was all she wrote for the first 45 minutes. It was a wild swing of emotions for Roma, who saw a goal chalked off and clawed back to grab the lead before conceding an equalizer thanks to some shoddy defending.
The second half started where the first ended, with both sides becoming increasingly contentious. Cooler heads prevailed, but one couldn't help escape the sense of foreboding that this match may not end with one goal apiece, to say nothing of all 22 players remaining on the pitch.
And just as he did in the first half, Antonio Candreva struck again... and quickly, settling a switched ball at the right edge of the box, rifling a left-footed shot into the far post.
Antonio Candreva: 49th Minute (Roma 1, Salernitana 2)
ANTONIO CANDREVA ARE YOU SERIOUS?!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 20, 2023
THE 36-YEAR-OLD WITH AN ABSOLUTE BEAUTY! pic.twitter.com/cYX2j1EEY5
To their credit, Roma continued to hunt for an equalizer after Candreva's stunning goal seemingly sucked the life out of the Olimpico. Still, with little to no link-up between the defense and attack, the Giallorossi struggled to make their mark.
With two-thirds of the match come and gone, Roma made a quadruple change in the 65th minute, bringing Renato Sanches, Leandro Paredes, Rick Karsdorp, and Nicola Zalewski into the mix, swapping out Kristensen, Spinazzola, Bove, and Smalling.
Roma limped into the 73rd-minute cooling break, struggling to find the slightest bit of fluency in the final third, hoping against hope they'd catch a break and steal a second goal from underneath Memo Ochoa's nose.
And they came close in the 78th minute when Sanches burst down the right seam, playing El Shaarawy into the box. With Ochoa quickly closing down the angle, SES had no choice but to act, snapping a quick shot off the upright, missing an equalizer by a matter of inches. Still, it was a sign of life from a Roma side that had been wandering around the pitch for 20 minutes.
Like they did so many times last season, Roma's saving grace came on the setpiece.
Andrea Belotti: 82nd Minute (Roma 2, Salernitana 2)
Andrea Belotti is at it again!— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) August 20, 2023
His second of the day. pic.twitter.com/I4IX1ZjHic
With Leandro Paredes teeing it up from the left corner flag, Belotti rose up (almost too high!) to meet the ball, missed it with his head, yet somehow got a shoulder to the ball, giving it just enough swerve to beat Ochoa.
But would they have enough left in the tank to take all three points?
They certainly tried. Even with a late injection of attacking inspiration from young Riccard Pagano, Roma couldn't find a late match winner, coming close when El Shaarawy ran down a ball toward the end line, quickly squaring it back to Belotti in the box, but Roma's number 11 couldn't quite wrap his foot around it.
In the end, Roma did well to scratch and claw their way back but was forced to share the spoils with Salernitana.
This being the first match of the season, it's far too early to draw any definitive conclusions, particularly given how uneven the game was. From the thrill of seeing Andrea Belotti finally score for Roma to having the wind taken out of them twice by Antonio Candreva to the long bouts of inefficient and uninspired football, in many ways, this felt like a continuation of last spring, featuring the same headaches, the same faint hopes of optimism and the overall feeling of dis-ease.
On the bright side, Belotti was fantastic, giving hope that last season was, in fact, an aberration; Diego Llorente was dynamic going both ways; Leandro Paredes looks like another viable setpiece threat; Renato Sanches brought some much-needed energy to the midfield and even El Shaarawy came close to breaking the deadlock.
It was not the best start for Roma, but certainly not the worst, especially when they were down two of their best players.
Roma travels to Verona on Saturday.