With Roma's dual Europa League-Serie A track congesting their fixture list, Paulo Fonseca dug deep into his bag of tricks today, offering a unique starting eleven for the club's trip to Sardinia. Bruno Peres, Federico Fazio, Nikola Kalinic and Gonzalo Villar all made rare starts this evening, with the young Spaniard making his first start in a Roma shirt. With such a patchwork lineup, Fonseca made sure to include three of his more recent stalwarts, Justin Kluivert, Cengiz Ünder and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Through the first 10 minutes of this match, you would have guessed Roma's chosen eleven had been playing together for years. Roma were fast, direct and aggressive in the early stages of this match, peppering Robin Olsen with shots from distance, through balls, counter attacks and even a few well-taken set pieces.
Roma's best chance came before the 10 minute mark when Ünder struck the cross bar from 18-yards-out. With his rebound caroming all the way to the left edge of the box, Roma had another chance which produced another juicy rebound, this one falling right to the feet of Kalinic, who wasted a golden chance to give Roma an early lead.
Making matters worse was the appearance of Gianluigi Buffon in a Cagliari keeper kit, but he looked a lot taller, blonder and more awkward. As is so often the case in these scenarios, Roma were up against a once in a lifetime performance from the opposing keeper, as Robin Olsen was up for whatever his parent club through at him through the early stages of this match.
If you've been a Roma fan for any decent amount of time, you knew...you fucking knew...what was going to happen next.
Joao Pedro: 28th Minute (Cagliari 1, Roma 0)
Joao Pedro caught Roma napping and dinked one just over Pau Lopez's head from roughly 17-yards-out. It was a splendid effort from Pedro, but nothing in the prior 27 minutes of action suggested Cagliari would find the first break through.
Buuutt....here's the good news, Roma struck back, like, right back. Leveling the match in literally in the next minute.
Nikola Kalinic: 29th Minute (Cagliari 1, Roma 1)
That unfortunate Cagliari player serving up the de facto assist to Kalinic was none other than Luca Pellegrini, who I can only assume was attempting to clear the ball over the cross bar. But, as it stood, Kalinic was Johnny on the spot, deftly heading it home at the far post for his first Roma goal—he actually scored against Cagliari back in the fall only to see his goal disallowed.
With a little help from Mkhitaryan, Kalinic would strike again shortly before the stroke of half-time.
Nikola Kalinic: 41st Minute (Cagliari 1, Roma 2)
Mkhitaryan has been a god-send to Roma's once stagnant attack. Since returning last month, he's been front in center in some of the best passages of play we've seen in months, and this goal was no different. After running on to a ball from Ünder, Mkhitaryan took a clever touch to squeeze past two defenders before setting up Kalinic for the tap-in.
It was a great and well-timed goal because Cagliari in no way, shape or form deserved to be level with Roma. Kalinic got the rare start but he delivered, putting Roma up 2-1 at half-time.
Roma came out at full-tilt in the second half, with Ünder and Kluivert picking up right where they left off in the first half, darting around the defense, cutting in and letting hell rain down on Olsen's goal. Kluivert struck the post with a cracking effort in the 49th minute, cutting back, taking a touch and unfurling a perfect effort that would have produced Roma's third goal were it not for a couple of inches of lacquered woodwork.
We had end-to-end stuff through the hour mark, with Roma emphasizing their athletic advantage via Ünder and Kluivert while Cagliari were content to feed Pedro and Marco Rog on their left flank. Kluivert had another near-chance before the hour mark with a left-footed attempt, but the match started to settle shortly thereafter.
It would wake up moments later...
Justin Kluivert: 64th Minute (Cagliari 1, Roma 3)
Now this was a tidy goal. Starting with Aleksandar Kolarov, Roma managed a three-touch goal that spanned nearly the entire length of the pitch in a matter of maybe five seconds, if that. After Kolarov found Kalinic with a pinpoint long ball, the Croatian forward headed it on to Kluivert, leaving it to the Dutchman to charge ahead and slip it past the oncoming Robin Olsen.
You have to love what you're seeing from Fonseca's attack the past two or three matches. These haven't been fluke goals, they've been the end result of purposeful, aggressive and efficient build-up play. And not only that, they've been coming from previously overlooked or absent sources—Kalinic, Mkhitaryan, etc. Great stuff from Roma.
Cagliari wouldn't relent, though....
Gaston Pereiro: 75th Minute (Cagliari 2, Roma 3)
While they were largely feeding the ball through Luca Pellegrini and Pedro on the left, Gaston Pereiro would pull one back in the 75th minute, practically walking through Roma's midfield untouched before blasting one past Pau Lopez. You can't really see it in that clip, but he had a free-pass all the way to the edge of the 18.
Fonseca had already queued up a substitution before that goal, but swapping out Ünder, who had picked up a yellow earlier, for Carles Perez was probably the smart choice regardless of the scoreline.
With less than 15 minutes remaining and Cagliari suddenly imbued with optimism, Roma suddenly had a taut match on their hands. However, as he's so often done throughout his Roma career, Aleksandar Kolarov conjured up a bit of setpiece magic.
Aleksandar Kolarov/Henrikh Mkhitaryan: 81st Minute (Cagliari 2, Roma 4)
The official scorer in Cagliari credited Mkhitaryan with this goal, but it sure looks like Kolarov scored that directly. Either way, for the second time this evening, Roma struck right back after a moment of lax defending; you have to like that resolve.
Fonseca would follow this up with a double swap, pulling off Peres for Davide Santon and Kluivert for Jordan Veretout.
Lest you think the chaos subsided, Roma would tempt the VAR gods in the 85th minute when Chris Smalling inadvertently struck the ball with his right arm/bicep. With the ball curling in and Simeone miss-timing his header, the ball almost struck Smalling by default; he was well positioned and only hit the ball due to Simeone's ill-timed jump.
It was a tough break but the correct call, which led to more chaos...
Joao Pedro: 90th Minute (Cagliari 3, Roma 4)
Joao Pedro stepped up to the spot and tried to do his best Diego Perotti impression, stuttering and stopping, but Pau Lopez guessed right, blocking Pedro's low and away attempt to the right post....but, with the rebound falling right back in front of goal, Pedro was able to tuck it away with a diving header.
Thanks to a few minor injuries and the VAR call, the refs tacked on six minutes of stoppage time to this match. While nerves were tense and yellow cards dispensed, Roma managed to hang on through the 97th minute to claim their second-straight Serie A victory.
Matches like this usually take a few days to digest, but there was one clear-cut positive to take form this match: after conceding two goals thanks to lazy defending, Roma struck right back. In the weeks prior to this, I'm not sure Roma would have had the energy or fortitude to jump immediately back into the match after conceding goals to Pedro or Pereiro, but they hit back at Cagliari with two beautifully constructed goals, one in the run of play and one from a set-piece.
Pulling our view finder back a bit, we should laud Roma for their overall effort. After dominating the opening 20 minutes or so, it seemed like they were destined to be done in by an über performance from Robin Olsen, but they kept the pressure on Cagliari, using darting and blazing runs from Kluivert and Ünder to burst through Cagliari's backline. At the back, Villar, Cristante, Fazio and Smalling each were calm, composed and stuck to their roles, reading and decomposing Cagliari's best efforts throughout the match, save for those two egregious goals, which, as we just said, Roma quickly pulled back.
This would have been a better effort were it not for those Pedro and Pereiro goals, but Roma seem to be putting their January and early February woes to rest.
Roma get a bit of a break before welcoming Sampdoria to the Olimpico next Sunday.