Nainggolan, Strootman lead Roma to gritty win at Udinese
Roma closed the gap between them and Serie A leaders Juventus to just one point after their gritty 1-0 win at Udinese was followed up by a dramatic 2-1 win for Fiorentina over the Old Lady, but regardless of the result of that intense encounter the Giallorossi can be happy with their side's new-found ability to grind out results when not at their best.
The narrow victory at the Stadio Friuli was the second such win for Roma in as many weeks, and apart from one scrabbled first-half double save from Wojciech Szczesny, Luciano Spalletti's team rarely looked in danger after Radja Nainggolan opened the scoring by classily volleying home the outstanding Kevin Strootman's magical chipped pass. In truth the contest should have been done and dusted within the first 20 minutes, with Stephan El Shaarawy denied by a superb Orestis Karnezis save and Edin Dzeko booting his 18th-minute penalty into the Dolomite mountains, but no matter -- Lazio, Napoli and Inter all won, so this was already a massive three points even before Fiorentina opened the Scudetto door ajar.
Two clean sheets in a row for Roma, and once again Federico Fazio shone at the heart of the defence, clearing practically everything that came his way and looking every inch the authoritative centre-back. Roma have only conceded twice in their last six games, keeping a clean sheet four times in that span-- three times away from home -- and that solidity is allowing them to win games despite the goals drying up at the other end of the pitch. They were helped in their task on Sunday by the rampaging Strootman, who cleared up everything that came his way.
It seems harsh to call this a crisis for Edin Dzeko after the way he played in the first half of the season, but today's misfiring performance means that he has only scored once in his last six and hasn't scored a league goal away from the Stadio Olimpico since duffing over Sassuolo on his own in late October. Outside the box his play is excellent, and he is crucial to Roma's attacking structure, but in front of goal there is a problem -- presented with four good chances to score, he only hit the target once, and almost as bad as his embarrassing skied penalty was his shanked free header 10 minutes from time.
6 -- Spalletti stuck with the same 3-4-2-1 formation that has served his team so well in recent weeks, with a couple of forced changes, and it paid off. Having the fixed three in front of Szczesny has made Roma much harder to break down while enabling the two midfielders in front -- in this case Strootman and Leandro Paredes -- to push forward as much as protect the defence. It also limits the damage Bruno Peres can do to his own team while allowing him to get at the opposition left-back.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Wojciech Szczesny, 8 -- His double save from Felipe and Rodrigo de Paul kept Roam in front just as heads dropped following Dzeko's penalty miss. Rock solid as ever.
DF Kostas Manolas, 7 -- Neat and tidy on the right of the back three, holding a solid line with Fazio and generally keeping his nose clean.
DF Federico Fazio, 8 -- Sky Italia described his performance as "immense". It's hard to add anything to that.
DF Juan Jesus, 6 -- The Brazilian looks more comfortable in a back three than in a central two or at left-back. Steady and unhurried.
MF Bruno Peres, 6 -- Always threatened to do something special going forward, but never did.
MF Leandro Paredes, 7 -- A delight to watch with the ball at his feet, and showed maturity in the defensive side too.
MF Kevin Strootman, 9 -- A monster. All over the pitch winning tackles and breaking up play, and provided a sumptuous assist for the match-winner Nainggolan
MF Emerson Palmieri, 7 -- Growing in stature with every week that passes. Along with Fazio one of the surprises of the season.
MF Radja Nainggolan, 8 -- Took his winner in the style of a true attacking midfielder, and did enough work off the ball for two players.
FW Stephan El Shaarawy, 6 -- Given a starting berth in the absence of Diego Perotti and Mohamed Salah, and didn't do enough with the opportunity, despite winning Dzeko's penalty.
FW Edin Dzeko, 5 -- Started the match by looping over a Evry presentable chance, and it only got worse from there. Let's hope last season's Dzeko isn't making a comeback.
FW Francesco Totti, 6 -- Had Nainggolan not somehow slid past his wonderful chipped pass a second after he came on, he would have been making headlines around the world again. Shame, because the rest of his 30-minute cameo was decidedly prosaic.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley