Borderline humiliation for Antonio Conte and Chelsea in Rome
Heavy away defeat exposes all of the head coach’s fears over the depth of his squad
Roma 3 Chelsea 0
This will have left Antonio Conte pained. The Italian must have privately relished bringing his English champions back to his homeland in the hope they would dazzle in an arena where, on his last visit, he had overseen the Azzurri’s dismantling of Norway. Yet everything about this return to Rome was nightmarish, with Chelsea shredded at the back and profligate up front.
Leadership of this group has been lost. The only consolation, and it will feel considerable in the cold light of day, was Atlético Madrid’s failure to overcome Qarabag’s 10 men in Spain.
It was still a chastening experience, and another defeat to expose all the head coach’s fears over the depth of his squad as they sought to compete on four fronts. They were ragged at the back from the first minute and, even before November, carrying too many weary or aching limbs in midfield and up front, and utterly overwhelmed.
Only Thibaut Courtois’ reflexes prevented Kostas Manolas adding a fourth for Roma near the end, the goalkeeper blocking a header from point-blank range. On this evidence Manchester United should relish their visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Conte, a lonely figure in a vast technical area, had grumbled on the touchline while the locals whipped up their celebratory din through much of this occasion, a manager aghast at his team’s defensive fragility.
Indecision and downright panic gripped too often across the back five, failings that had left the visitors playing catch-up almost from the outset. How the head coach must have wished N’Golo Kanté could have featured here but, having assessed the Frenchman’s hamstring through the day, the decision had been taken that “it would be stupid to risk it” with the midfielder still not feeling fully ready to return.
Without Kanté, and with others labouring under the weight of games, Chelsea have proved distinctly vulnerable.
They had conceded with the game in its infancy, the back-line perhaps still adjusting to Gary Cahill’s switch to the right of the trio of centre-halves with the former Roma player Antonio Rüdiger on the left. It did not take much to bypass them, Aleksandar Kolarov flinging over a cross from the left from which Edin Dzeko, in between David Luiz and Rüdiger, improvised a lay-off via a mess of head and shoulder.
The ball dropped into space just outside the area – territory that might normally be patrolled by Kanté – but, while Marcos Alonso dawdled, Stephan El Shaarawy sensed his opportunity to sprint through on the wing-back’s inside and dispatch a first-time shot with the outside of his right foot that careered beyond Courtois. The scoreboards inside the arena timed the effort at 38 seconds. Roma had never registered a quicker goal in this competition.
It was the kind of start to reflect the tie’s frenzied buildup, the locals having seized upon their team’s impressive display at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago as grounds for optimism, with this another opportunity to show they belong.
That they could include Daniele de Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi and El Shaarawy, all substitutes in London, in the starting lineup gave their team a more imposing look. Conte had coached all three with the national team and had admitted earlier this month that working with them had given him “goosebumps”. The sensation would have been more painful while El Shaarawy ran riot.
The forward should have added a second just after the half-hour mark, bursting on to another Dzeko pass after David Luiz had surrendered the ball carelessly. Courtois blocked that attempt with his feet, but the respite was brief. Within a minute, Radja Nainggolan had flung over an optimistic centre from the left that Rüdiger, unaware that El Shaarawy had a run on César Azpilicueta’s inside at his back, chose not to intercept. The Italy forward could not believe his luck and simply guided the ball beyond a static Courtois.
What made Chelsea’s frustration all the more acute was that, as an attacking force, they had actually posed a threat. Eden Hazard might have equalised while the majority inside the arena were still digesting their team’s early opener. Alisson Becker denied the Belgian twice more before the break, as well as turning away Alonso’s curled attempt.
More wasteful for the visitors were the misses from Álvaro Morata, an anxious snapshot in front of goal after Pedro had blocked a clearance, and Tiémoué Bakayoko, planting a free header wide from Cesc Fàbregas’s corner, where the Brazilian goalkeeper would have stood no chance.
Morata, suddenly a player ill at ease with life, scuffed another shot wide of the far post after the interval, by which time Conte had hauled off his captain, Cahill, in the hope Willian’s energy might unsettle dominant hosts. Yet the reshuffle merely seemed to spread confusion.
Fàbregas’s skewed pass and Kolarov’s slide-rule duly sent the excellent Diego Perotti scuttling at Pedro, exposed at right wing-back. The Spaniard dangled a leg half-heartedly as Perotti skipped beyond him, and his low shot fizzed beyond Courtois from 25 yards with all sense of Chelsea’s defensive discipline long since evaporated.
Conte sank his hands deeper still into his pockets, his feeling of helplessness acute. This bordered on humiliation.