Pazzini 52, 85
A well-worn cliché of title-winning sides is the ability to grind out results while not playing particularly well. The games where a side comes under pressure from an inferior foe but steal a narrow victory typify those that have a winning mentality as well as talented individuals. This was the opposite of one of those performances. Roma played well for the majority of the game and had the territory and opportunities to have it sewn up by half-time. The team somehow contrived to lose and that means Inter’s destiny is now in their own hands while if Giallorossi lose the title, they will probably look back on this as a fatal evening.
Claudio Ranieri’s side had come from mid-table obscurity to become serious contenders on the back of a six month unbeaten run. Eighteen wins and six draws from their last twenty-four outings is an astonishingly good record and has consisted roughly equally of positive, domineering displays and pragmatic results where they turned the key moments in their favour. For forty-five minutes, we got the former. Roma were positive, enterprising and full of purposes.
Mirko Vucinic was a constant thorn in the Samp side, looking dangerous every time he got the ball. After Juan had skied a volley he should have buried early on, Vucinic ran half the length of the field before squaring the ball just behind the onrushing Simone Perrotta, who shot straight at Marco Storari from the ensuing play. When he repeated the trick a few minutes later, this time the telepathy was working, and Francesco Totti applied a cool finish to give them a deserved lead. The combination nearly produced a second, but Storari saved smartly at his near post. Jeremy Menez’ hit from a great set-piece routine was well saved and Totti volleyed the rebound wide. Vucinic’s ball-carrying set up Menez again, who fired over. It really was that easy for Roma, who had only one minor scare when Nicolas Burdisso had to block an Antonio Cassano shot. Sometimes, when a side is dominant and leads by only a solitary strike at the break, one can get the feeling that profligacy in front of goal may come back to bite them. Such was their dominance that the thought never entered this writer’s head. The evidence was that a killer second goal was imminent and that would be the end of what had been a very one-sided contest.
Two key elements contributed to the second half turnaround. First, Samp did not allow their opponents to get into the final third before pressurising the man on the ball. Luigi Del Neri had seen his team show too much respect and it is to his credit that he addressed this tactical flaw at the interval. Second, Roma contributed to their own mess with some marking that can generously be described as casual. Cassano was invited to deliver a ball from the left, so he did. It was a textbook stand-up to the back post, but how Giampaolo Pazzini lost three Roma defenders to head downwards past Sergio will be a mystery to which Ranieri will crave an answer. Suddenly, Samp’s gameplan of absorb and break, which had been disrupted by the goal, was back on, and the complication in the script lent a desperation to the hosts’ play that had not previously been evident.
The introduction of Luca Toni midway through the second half almost paid instant dividends, but the tall striker’s lack of sharpness clearly hindered his decision-making. With others in the penalty area, a header across goal was a better percentage move than one towards it. Menez hit the side netting and a quieter Vucinic wanted a penalty for a clip some three yards outside the box. Roma piled forward en masse, but you never got the feeling that a sucker-punch was coming until Daniele Mannini broke a la Vucinic down the left and slid the ball across. One of three Roma defenders could and should have got the first touch. Instead Pazzini did.
Roma’s defenders until the end of the game may as well have been stationery artillery cannons. The hopeful cruise missiles launched up to Toni smacked of a side who knew the game was up. However, this was no hard luck story or fluky smash-and-grab raid, but a self-inflicted and thoroughly avoidable setback. Samp were not exactly good value for the win, but Luigi Del Neri will cherish a result that eclipses anything he achieved while coach at Stadio Olimpico and keeps their Champions League dream alive. Sides that dominate games can afford to be a little careless in front of goal, or they can perhaps be allowed one defensive lapse and still obtain a positive result. However, a side looking to clinch a Scudetto cannot afford to do both, and that is precisely what Roma did this evening.