José Mourinho's first match on the bench got off to an auspicious start as the club unveiled new signing Romelu Lukaku to the Roma faithful at the Stadio Olimpico before today's kick-off. While Big Rom didn't crack the starting lineup, the star striker was available on the bench, as was captain Lorenzo Pellegrini, who was scratched from the starting lineup due to muscle fatigue, while Paulo Dybala missed the match entirely.
Mourinho made a couple of other key changes to his starting eleven, benching Rick Karsdorp in favor of Zeki Celik at right wing-back and starting Houssem Aouar, Bryan Cristante, and Leandro Paredes as his midfield three, with Andrea Belotti and Stephan El Shaarawy operating at the front of Mourinho's 3-5-2. At the back, Diego Llorente, Chris Smalling, and Gianluca Mancini stood guard in front of Rui Patricio in goal.
After an initial settling-in period, Milan seized the early initiative when Ruben Loftus-Cheek burst into the box in the sixth minute, pulling Rui Patricio off his line. For a moment, it looked like the Englishman would open the scoring, but thanks to a late deflection from Zeki Celik, the Giallorossi averted disaster.
But, since this is Roma, they could only tempt fate for so long. After a quick VAR check, Milan was awarded a penalty as Patricio, already falling over, inadvertently clipped Loftus-Cheek's shin with all the force of a housefly landing on a piece of bread. Olivier Giroud stepped up and easily converted the penalty, putting Milan up 1-0 before the clock passed the 10-minute mark.
And things continued to go downhill for Roma over the ensuing 10 minutes, as Mourinho's men struggled to retain possession, to say nothing of stopping Milan's wide players from running rampant down the flank. The site of Rafael Leao breezing past Cristante and Celik became so commonplace you hardly noticed; the Rossoneri had their way with Roma early in this match.
Milan nearly increased their lead to 2-0 in the 21st minute when Pulisic made a late run into the box, lashing a ball towards the goal, but Patricio was up to the task, swatting the ball out of the way with a wild swing of his arm. It was a bang-bang play that scored nine times out of ten, but Patricio read it perfectly and reacted in a split-second to keep this match from falling completely off the edge.
Things took a turn for the worse at the half-hour mark when Aouar left the pitch with an apparent injury, replaced by Pellegrini, who didn't start due to muscle fatigue. It added insult to injury for Roma, as Aouar was the only attacking player carrying his weight to this point in the match.
Aouar or not, Roma continued to struggle as the first half drew to a close. All told, Milan held nearly two-thirds of the possession and completed more passes than Roma even attempted.
It was a stale, ugly, and dispiriting performance from the Giallorossi in the first half.
While it would have been great if Roma showed some pluck to begin the new half, it took only two minutes before Milan imposed their will on the Giallorossi, as Leao scored an absurd volley while falling and having Celik draped all over him. In essence, it was a bicycle kick from the ground. Celik had him pinned down, yet Leao still managed to flick the ball into goal. We must give credit where it's due; that was a sensational goal.
RAFAEL. LEÃO.— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) September 1, 2023
WORLD CLASS MAGIC. pic.twitter.com/M7RVhOKoeZ
Milan continued to toy with Roma for the ensuing 15 minutes, but some luck finally fell Roma's way at the hour mark when Fikayo Tomori was sent off after drawing his second yellow card. Unfortunately, Pellegrini's ensuing free-kick found nothing but the Milan wall, which thwarted the captain's attempt without batting an eye.
With Roma down 2-0, Mourinho made a triple change, bringing Leonardo Spinazzola, Edoardo Bove, and Romelu Lukaku into the match, dropping El Shaarawy, Paredes and Zalewski in the process. And Lukaku made his presence felt immediately as he held up play before running onto a layoff, firing a shot narrowly over Mike Maignan's outstretched hands.
Mourinho's next change saw young Riccardo Pagano come on for Gianluca Mancini, giving Roma more attacking flavor for the final 10 minutes plus stoppage time. The Giallorossi managed to steal a goal back in stoppage time when Spinazzola darted down the left flank, firing a shot into a crowded box. While it required a deflection, it dipped enough to beat Maignan, giving Roma a late lifeline.
Roma came close a minute later when Edoardo Bove found himself unexpectedly free at the far right post after Maignan came off his line, but the young midfielder couldn't react fast enough to take advantage. And that was all she wrote. Stoppage time ran a bit long, but Milan retained possession and was able to milk the clock for all its worth, taking all three points in the process.
With only one point through their first three matches and injuries to key players like Paulo Dybala, Renato Sanches, and now Houssem Aouar, this has been a nightmare start for Mourinho and Roma. And depending on how the remainder of the weekend's results can go, the Giallorossi could find themselves at the bottom of the table.
Of course, there are still 35 matches left to play, and Lukaku only joined yesterday, but they've dug a hole for themselves to start the season. Roma will need a little bit of luck, a few minor miracles from the medical staff, and more favorable referring to claw their way back towards the upper reaches of the table.
The bright side is clearly Lukaku. In limited action and with only one training session under his belt, Lukaku was already dictating the pace and direction of play, shielding the ball, occupying defenders, and creating chances for Roma's wide players. Get him up to speed, get Dybala and Aouar back healthy, and Roma will be cooking.
The international break, but Roma returns to action on the 17th when they host Empoli.