A lone goal by Diego Perotti, among a flurry of disorderly attack chances, pushed Roma into the Round of 16 of Champions League after a one-year absence. The Giallorossi took longer than expected to burst through Qarabag’s defensive wall, but could ultimately celebrate finishing at the top of Group C, thanks to the simultaneous 1-1 tie between Chelsea and Atlético Madrid.
Roma needed three points to ensure their spot among the top 16 European clubs without having to look at the outcome of the Stamford Bridge match. Coach Eusebio Di Francesco was well aware of that, and showed no disrespect versus the weaker Azeri side by lining up his best possible squad. He had called for an aggressive start in a pre-match press conference, but his boys took quite some time to get into match mood.
Roma’s start was indeed abulic, and the only threats for Qarabag’s goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic initially came only from free kicks. The Giallorossi collected six corner kicks in the first half, but their offenses were confused and effectiveness lacked. The last pass, or the final shot were always missing. Despite a 60% ball possession in favor of Roma, Sehic didn’t have to outdo himself until the first half extra time, when he deflected with his foot a missile shot by Radja Nainggolan.
The Azeri had nothing to gain from tonight’s match, except for a good away performance to conclude a more than respectable debut season in Champions League. They even tried to go farther than that, taking advantage of their opponents’ distractions. When midfielder Richard Almeida was left free to shot from out of the box (his conclusion ending narrowly out of target) Giallorossi goalkeeper Alisson Becker was furious at his defenders – and so was coach Di Francesco.
The home side got the message, and progressively took control of the key areas of the field. From that point on, Qarabag’s defensive area was under siege – still with little effect. Defender Federico Fazio stealing an attacking chance from Stephan El Shaarawy at the 50th minute was the perfect image of Roma’s failure to organize themselves.
But luckily for the home supporters, it took only three more minutes for Roma to finally cash a goal. It all started and ended with Diego Perotti. The Argentinian winger opened for Kevin Strootman, who promptly served Edin Dzeko. The shot by Roma’s number 9 – who broke a seven-game no-scoring fast just last weekend – was deflected by Qarabag’s excellent goalkeeper, but Perotti was ready to tap the ball in with a header.
Right at the same time, rumors about Atlético winning 1-0 in London spread at the Stadio Olimpico, leaving room for a risky scenario. Beating Qarabag would mean qualification and first spot in the group for Roma, but if the Azeri happened to tie, that would push the Giallorossi out of the top European competition…
With Di Francesco still urging his troops to attack and score a second goal, Nainggolan continued his personal battle with Sehic. A new violent shot from the Belgian called the Azeri’s keeper to another great save. That came in the middle of a storm of five corner kicks in a row for Roma.
Then Italian coach Antonio Conte gave a big hand to the Lupi as his Chelsea equalised their match with Atlético, to produce the best result combination for Di Francesco’s side. There was still time to see Aleksandar Kolarov magically squeezing into the Azeri’s box and give Sehic another chance to shine, before the final whistle sent the Giallorossi to the knockout stage together with Chelsea.
A quite unexpected and exciting achievement in a Group whose starting grid saw Roma well behind Chelsea and Atlético Madrid.
December 5, 2017 – Champions League 2017-18 Group C
ROMA-QARABAG FK 1-0
SCORER: 53’ Perotti
|ROMA (4-3-3): Alisson; Florenzi, Manolas, Fazio, Kolarov; Nainggolan, De Rossi, Strootman; El Shaarawy (72′ Gerson), Dzeko, Perotti (81′ Pellegrini). (Skorupski, Juan Jesus, Schick, Moreno, Gonalons) Coach: Di Francesco|
|QARABAG FK (4-1-4-1): Sehic; Medvedev, Yunuszada, Rzezniczak, Guerrier; Qarayev; Ismayilov (76′ st Dani Quintana), Michel, Richard Almeida, Madatov (85′ Sheydaev); Ndlovu (85′ Ramazanov) (Kanibolotskiy, Amirguliyev, Huseynov, Diniyev) Coach: Gurbanov|
REFEREE: Stieler (Germany)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Dzeko (R), Guerrier, Yunuszada, Michel, Rzezniczak (Q); Extra Time: 1st Half 3’, 2nd Half 2’.
Feature Photo: © Lapresse