The 2-0 victory that Roma emerged with from the Stadio Mapei hardly tells the story of the game Sassuolo on Tuesday night. A brilliant first half, arguably the best Roma have played all season, was followed by a tense second 45 minutes that even saw Sassuolo miss a penalty before the Giallorossi eventually wrapped up a vital three points.
The win in and of itself was crucial, no matter how it came about. Roma had played well in the 3-1 win against Frosinone, and were looking for their first back to back league victories since October. Sassuolo meanwhile were without a win in four. Roma had their share of injury problems, but in the first half you would hardly have noticed. The passing was quick, crisp and sharp. There was movement, there was energy and most of all there was desire.
It has to be said that Sassuolo were a shadow of their normal selves, but equally Roma never allowed them into the game or to let them get the ball to the dangerous Nicola Sansone and Domenico Berardi on the wings. Mohamed Salah put the Giallorossi ahead with a fine finish from outside the box as the hosts stood off him, and they could have got one or two more before half time. Maicon should have done better at the end of a lung-bursting, direct run from his own half into the Sassuolo penalty area that brought back memories of halcyon days, and then only some brilliant defending by Paolo Cannavaro stopped Stephan El Shaarawy from converting Salah’s cross.
After the break though, Roma dropped deeper and deeper and showed the signs of fragility that had characterised the later days of the Rudi Garcia era. Sassuolo were allowed not only to regain a foothold in the game but dominate large stretches of the second half, and Wojciech Szczesny was called on a number of times to deny the home side. What was striking though was the way Roma played as a really cohesive unit, rather than a collection of individuals who were all waiting for someone else to step up and produce something. Even Diego Perotti, nominally the striker on the night and who had performed very well on his debut in the first half, sacrificed his attacking intent to help close spaces in midfield and prevent Sassuolo from getting the room they needed.
Moreover, and unlike during the Garcia era, Spalletti was able to adapt to changing and difficult circumstances. The game began with Roma using a fluid system with a three man defence (Maicon pushing further forward), but after Daniele De Rossi’s injury Spalletti switched to a 4-2-3-1. The result was a more balanced team (made more defensively sound by the replacement of Miralem Pjanic with William Vainqueur), which didn’t allow Sassuolo to take advantage of the space Maicon was leaving open behind him as they had on 2 or 3 occasions prior to then. This shift, together with a solid and resilient performance by Roma in the second half, helped the Giallorossi to a well deserved win.
It was nearly very different though when late on, at 1-0, Radja Nainggolan was adjudged to have brought down Lorenzo Pellegrini (formerly of Roma) in the box and was sent off for a second yellow card. It was a poor decision by Andrea Gervasoni, who (together with his linesmen) consistently made poor calls throughout the game, but justice was restored when Berardi’s penalty clipped the crossbar on its way over. Minutes later, Perotti wrapped up the game when he stole possession off Sassuolo, left Cannavaro for dead in the penalty area and crossed for El Shaarawy to score from close range.
The emotion in the resulting celebrations showed how much of a team Roma have become again; this was pure, unadulterated joy that the entire team and staff joined together in. Although the same problems of not taking chances and some defensive frailties were on show, there was a new spirit about Roma that should give every Romanista optimism. Perhaps, therefore, more so than the win over Frosinone, this victory and the performance that went with it will really give Roma the base from which to work for the rest of the season.