Thursday, May 23, 2024

Roma 0-2 Bayer Leverkusen: Talking points as new Bundesliga champions take big step towards Europa League final

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In the first leg of their clash in the semifinals of the Europa League, played on Thursday at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Bayer Leverkusen continued their incredible season by beating AS Roma, courtesy of goals from Florian Wirtz in the 28th minute and Robert Andrich in the 73rd.

The game

The newly crowned German champions needed no more than their 47% of possession to earn this vital victory, with the fact that they took a total of 19 shots compared to Roma’s eight telling a lot more about the way the contest developed. The game was anticipated as a clash between two young, promising coaches, and everything about it showed that Xabi Alonso is some way ahead of Daniele De Rossi at this point of their respective careers.

Throughout the match, Roma struggled to get the ball far up the pitch through passing as the visitors applied a perfect combination of pressing high, defending from the front line on the halfway line, and dropping deep when needed. Also, Leverkusen’s offensive transition game was quite impressive, making full use of the stunning pace of Jeremie Frimpong on the right and Alejandro Grimaldo on the left.

The teams were deployed in different formations. Alonso used his standard 3-4-2-1 shape, with the back line consisting of Piero Hincapie, Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba. Andrich was joined by Granit Xhaka in the middle of the park, forming a partnership bursting with experience and fighting spirit, flanked by Grimaldo and Josip Stanisic as the wing-backs. Further up, Wirtz and Frimpong played closest to Amine Adli, picked ahead of Victor Boniface and Patrik Schick, both of whom remained on the bench for the entire match.

Meanwhile, De Rossi’s men were arranged in a 4-3-2-1. He chose Chris Smalling and Gianluca Mancini as the centre-back pair, flanked by Rick Karsdorp on the right and Leonardo Spinazzola on the left. Much like Alonso, he chose a steely midfield partnership of Bryan Cristante and Leandro Paredes, with captain Lorenzo Pellegrini providing a bit more flair and creativity. Stephan El Shaarawy and Paulo Dybala played in support of Romelu Lukaku upfront.

Lukaku, known for his surprising agility for a striker of that size, forced Tah to pull him down by the shirt and earn a booking in the 16th minute, and it seemed at that point the Leverkusen defence would have problems stopping the Belgian striker. However, the impression is that the home side used the option of seeking out Lukaku with long passes, basically playing to his strengths, far too little. Instead, they insisted on playing out from the back, which only played into the hands of the visitors, whose smart and relentless pressing repeatedly prevented them from getting far that way.

Roma did play well early on. Dybala looked lively for his team in that period, working hard to create something, and it was him who got the first whiff of goal as he let one fly from 20 yards on the stroke of 10 minutes, testing the alertness of Matej Kovar in the Leverkusen goal. In the 19th minute, a misjudgment by Stanisic provided El Shaarawy to put the ball in the box from the left, but Lukaku failed to get a shot off from around 10 yards. The chance earned Roma no more than a corner, but they threatened very seriously again as the ball flew over the crowd in the box and Paredes put it back into the thick of things. This time Lukaku rose high in the air, but his header hit the bar.

The first sign of danger at the other end came four minutes later. Cristante lost the ball in the opposition half and Xhaka immediately found Wirtz further up. The in-demand playmaker released the pace of Frimpong who escaped his marker with ease and burst into the box, but Roma goalkeeper Mile Svilar was quick off his line and did enough to put the Leverkusen wing-back off.

But in the 28th minute, Leverkusen were ahead, and there was nothing Svilar could do to save his team this time. The attack started with Kovar sending a long ball from his box to the left. Smalling’s effort to beat Adli in the air was far too feeble, but it looked rather harmless as Karsdorp got to the ball ahead of Grimaldo. However, the Roma right-back underhit a backpass towards Mancini and then slipped, and Grimaldo pounced. He was inside the box, running at Svilar at a tight angle, but Wirtz and Frimpong arrived timely for support. And as Svilar stepped up to close the angle completely, Grimaldo simply passed right and Wirtz was there for an easy tap-in.

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Grimaldo, Adli and Wirtz should certainly be credited for their work here, but it’s fair to say that this goal was the result of the two poorest performers on the night being involved in defending Roma’s goal.

But problems were only starting for De Rossi’s men. On the half-hour mark, which means only two minutes after the deadlock was broken, Tapsoba released the run of Frimpong against Spinazzola, and it was frightening to see just how fast the Leverkusen man is. He broke past his man like he wasn’t there and timely pulled it back for the incoming Wirtz, but Wirtz’s shot went straight into Svilar. Another three minutes later, an inexplicably wide pocket of space in Roma’s half allowed Wirtz to turn and pass to Adli on the edge of the box. As Karsdorp and Smalling closed their ranks, Adli involved Grimaldo who made the run down the left flank. A low cross followed, finding Frimpong free at 10 yards, and his shot missed the post by a few inches.

The moments when Roma looked like causing any sort of problem for the Leverkusen defence were few and far between, but one came in the 42nd minute when Lukaku held off both Tah and Stanisic on the edge of the box to lay it off for Paredes, and the Argentinian midfielder missed the target by a very narrow margin from just over 20 yards. Roma were almost made to pay for that in the last seconds of the half as Kovar started a quick counterattack for the visitors, throwing the ball to Wirtz who was once more in too much space. The goalscorer carried the ball up the pitch and Leverkusen suddenly had a five-on-three situation ahead of Roma’s box, but they overcomplicated it and eventually, Frimpong failed to score from six yards.

Ten minutes after the break, Roma had another fine chance as Cristante escaped his marker to get on the end of a Dybala corner, but his flick header missed the far post with Lukaku and Smalling unable to get there in time to poke it in.

The period that followed yielded little excitement, but that was the way Alonso’s men wanted it. They were ahead, in the first leg away from home, and there was no need to rush. They patiently waited for Roma’s focus to slip again, and their patience paid off fully in the 73rd minute.

They started moving forward from their own half, and their opponents appeared tired as they again failed to close the spaces and the passing lanes down. Xhaka took advantage of the situation and calmly found Grimaldo who was running towards the box. Grimaldo skillfully nutmegged Spinazzola and passed back towards Stanisic, and the Croatia international laid it off for Andrich at around 20 yards. Mancini was too slow to block Andrich’s shot, and it found its way straight into the top corner to double Leverkusen’s lead. Svilar maybe should’ve done more than just stand and watch it go in, but he probably wouldn’t have saved it anyway and he certainly cannot be blamed for the goal.

De Rossi’s response to this extremely damaging development was to withdraw Lukaku and send Sardar Azmoun on for the final 10 minutes or so, and the substitute striker had a great chance to halve the deficit in the 84th minute, but Hincapie’s incredible, though risky tackle prevented him from doing so. But the best chance Roma had all game happened in the final seconds of the four-minute stoppage time when Tammy Abraham, who came on previously instead of Dybala as De Rossi’s last roll of the dice, had a practically free header from six yards with Kovar’s goal gaping wide, and it was a great shock to see the former Chelsea striker send it over the bar.

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The woes of Chris Smalling

Smalling was never a world-class defender, but on his day, he used to be quite a decent one. He was arguably never considered a liability in a back line unless faced with world-class attackers. After all, this is a player with 31 caps as an England international under his belt.

And yet, in this game, the 34-year-old centre-back looked like an amateur in some aspects, particularly on the ball. He looked awkward and clumsy when in possession, misplacing 12% of his passes, which is a lot for a central defender in a four-at-the-back system. He gave the ball away in dangerous positions without any pressure on several occasions. Even in aerial duels, his arguably strongest area, his application and judgement were questionable.

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The only way to explain Smalling’s current performance level is through the tendon inflammation which kept him out of action from September to February this season. This was only his second start for Roma since his return, which tends to raise the question of De Rossi’s decision to pick the former Manchester United man ahead of the likes of Diego Llorente and Evan Ndicka, both of whom were on the bench.

Smalling obviously wasn’t ready for a game of this magnitude, let alone this particular opponent.

Into the second leg

Roma’s overall performance in this match was very poor and the result is a fair reflection of what was seen on the pitch between the first and the last whistle of referee Francois Letexier.

But even so, had Abraham scored, the end impression would arguably be very different and the Giallorossi would be heading to Germany next week not only with a point to prove, but with at least some hope of overturning the deficit and reaching the final. As it is, not only do they have to inflict Bayer with what would be their first defeat of the season – in any competition – but they need to do it by two goals to force the contest into extra time. If there was ever a football example of a mountain to climb, well, there it is.

Furthermore, Roma certainly need to worry about their domestic situation as well. Currently occupying fifth position in the Serie A rankings, they’re only two points ahead of Atalanta in sixth, and La Dea have a game in hand in what’s set to be an intriguing race to secure a place in next season’s Champions League. There is, of course, a scenario that could see both these teams qualify, if one of them wins the Europa League while losing that race. In the first leg of the other semifinal, Atalanta played a 1-1 draw away to Olympique Marseille.

And with Roma now very likely to go out of the Europa League, they’ll need every point they can get to finish fifth in the Serie A, which places great significance on their clash with Juventus at the Olimpico on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Leverkusen have already won the Bundesliga title in a most impressive manner, and their game against Eintracht in Frankfurt holds no competitive value, apart from an obvious desire to end the campaign undefeated. Alonso’s men therefore have the luxury of staying focused on the second leg against Roma, and given the result of the first leg, their progress to the final should prove a formality.

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Veselin Trajkovic

Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.



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