Clichés, though as much a plague upon the house of writing as a perpetually faulty boiler would be upon a normal house, sometimes serve a purpose. For if there was a game that justified the existence of ‘a game of two halves’ and ‘a cruel game’ as aliases for football, it was this one.
Roma didn’t really get going until they scored in the 11th minute. The first pass that managed to split the Sassuolo midfield found Salah in the right-hand half-space (that gap between the centre-back and full-back in a conventional back four). He cut inside and curled a shot with his left past the opposition keeper, a surprise turn to the unfolding tale in just the way that Guardiola’s announcement as the next Manchester City manager wasn’t.
Prior to that, the tactic of Sassuolo (7th in the table before the match on 33 points, just five behind Roma in 5th) seemed to be to take a couple of chunks out of the opposition, to chip some souvenir splinters from the Roman Colosseum gladiators. After, they had to abandon this, as they were spending too much time eating dust.
It doesn’t take long to watch them to realise that Roma’s primary attacking plan is to break really very quickly, and it became apparent later that this was pretty much all that they knew how to do. For periods of the first half though they looked imperially dominant, having two (weak, then very weak) penalty shouts and a domineering Maicon looking like Gareth Bale had happened to another man.
The ebb then flowed the other way. Sort of. Sassuolo managed to find their heads for a period of just over ten minutes from the 20th until just after the half-hour, but in taking a punt on a thrust they almost left themselves open to getting their side sliced open. Roma countered from one of their free-kicks, Maicon charged, passed to Salah who passed it right back, took a shot. A toe-poke. Wide of the near post by a good few inches, an embarrassing miss and one that gives defenders a bad name.
Another good chance presented itself just two minutes later. Pjanic, again, playing a great ball to Salah over the top of the defence, Salah managing to square the ball across the six-yard box from the by-line a few yards to the right of the post, but it was at an awkward height for newbie El Shaarawy in the centre, and the ball squirmed over.
The rest of the half passed relatively quietly. The game balanced out, Sassuolo took a few long range shots, Roma had a few chances to break but didn’t look too fussed to take them.
In the second half they probably wished that they had done. To start with, it was more of the same even-handedness as it had been just before the break, both sides now having shots from around 20 yards. Berardi had a shot from a not too dissimilar position than where Salah had scored in the first half, but in the box and wider, and it wasn’t a hard one for Szczesny to save. Salah himself again benefitted from a fantastic Pjanic pass, but his shot was a poor one, straight at the keeper as he got towards the six-yard box.
After that, it was Sassuolo’s turn to take the tide of the match and push Roma back with the waves of their attack. For nearly half an hour from the 55th minute onwards they were on top. Berardi got a good connection on a header but it was straight at Szczesny. A deflected Sansone cross, who was now making Maicon look like the retirement approachee he is now that he actually had to defend, just found its way into the keeper’s hands.
Maicon, to return to cliché, could well have been a dramatic device written into the script. A symbol of the marauding attack in the first half, he became a weakness, reduced in the 59th minute to a failed circus trick. Cornered, he appeared to keep his cool, befitting of a man in the sleek, stylish shirts of Roma. Facing his own corner flag, a Sassuolo player at his back, he scooped the ball up into the air like it was nothing. Two keepy-uppies. A clearan- oh, no, not quite. On trying to complete the act, swipe the ball away, he slipped and air kicked, the appeal to the referee as he rose a mask for his shattered ego.
He was substituted off in the 80th minute for Emerson, a like for like substitution in position only now that the once-mighty had fallen. The 21 year-old’s first act upon entering was to scoop a tremendous pass to Perotti, sparking a Roma attack and providing a welcome alleviation to the pressure that the Sass had been putting them under. Nainggolan managed to get a shot away at the end of it, but the attack had slowed too much and it was easily blocked.
The ball popped out of the area from the resulting corner and El Shaarawy had a clean strike, but in reality it was an easy save. A couple of minutes later, drama raised its head, though only briefly. A diagonal pass aimed at Salah was picked up by the sliding keeper in the box, but physics conspired to continue his slide out of the area, the ball leaving his arms just in time for him to kick out of play.
But. The tide had not turned. The reprieve had not been granted, the emperor had not yet had his say – thumbs up or thumbs down. Sassuolo were right back on the attack, a cross just evading Sansone at the back post; Acerbi, the centre-back, getting a snapshot following a corner that was, again, straight at Szczesny. In my notes of the match, I wrote after this event, and I quote, “Feel a goal HAS to come”.
The Gods heard the cry of justice. Politano, who’d been brought on minutes earlier, crossed from the left, a low, low pull-back. Pellegrini, another sub, was running onto it, a clear shot in front of him at goal, when Nainggolan’s tackle from behind clipped his heels.
A point to the spot. A second yellow and then a red card withdrawn from the pocket.
At some point in the ensuing clear-up of the situation, Falconelli (the first Sassuolo sub) was replaced by Berardi as the man standing by the spot beside the ball, beneath the sky and the opportunity to equalise. How different things could have been. Berardi missed, his penalty over the bar, Roma with two minutes plus added time to hang on.
Four minutes were shown on the fourth official’s board. In the 93rd Sassuolo had a deflected free-kick, bringing up the keeper for the following corner, but it went out for a Roma kick.
I mentioned that football was cruel. The ball up the other end of the pitch, seemingly in Sassuolo hands, Magnanelli, their central midfielder, had his pocket picked by Perotti who squared it across to Il Faraone – in English, the Pharaoh, but here, following his injury troubles and stagnating career, surely the Phoenix is more appropriate – to tap in. As El Shaarawy celebrated with his team-mates, the final whistle was blown.
On this night, it would be Rome that would reign.
[FT: Sassuolo 0, Roma 2 (Salah 11’, Nainggolan RED 87’, El Shaarawy 94’)]