2018-19 will go down as a historic season in AS Roma history; the first-ever for Roma Women. After a debut campaign that saw Betty Bavagnoli's side finish fourth in Serie A and reach the semi-finals of Coppa Italia, columnist Samuel Bannister takes an in-depth look at how it all unfolded...
All great stories have a great beginning and this season Roma’s newly established women’s team made their opening chapter one to remember.
Their debut season ended with a fourth-place finish in Serie A and a run to the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia – a tremendous return for a first attempt.
It was a unique season for many fans, as the Roma faithful got to know and support a brand new part of their club. The vast majority of supporters were not born when the men’s team was founded in 1927, but the formation of the women’s team allowed them to experience what it’s like to be there from the start.
History was being witnessed.
There was no real weight of expectations, and as such, everyone was impressed by the performances of this brand new group of players representing the Roma badge, who left them eagerly awaiting the team’s future successes.
These are the things we learned about the side over the course of the season...
Local talent a pivotal part of the formula
In the past, while young boys grew up dreaming of emulating the likes of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi by playing for their beloved Roma, there was no equivalent opportunity for female fans. Until now.
Knowing the benefits of having a large portion of passionate fans in the team, Roma acquired the services of several Romaniste when assembling their first women’s squad.
First and foremost was captain Elisa Bartoli. Rome born and bred, at 27 years of age she has already achieved lots in her career and was part of a successful Fiorentina team, but even so, the draw of playing for the club of her loyalties was too much to turn down.
After accepting the call without a second thought, Bartoli was ever-present for Roma in Serie A, proving to be the inspirational leader that the club had hoped – and knew – she would be. The full-back chipped in with four goals (including a spectacular bicycle kick against Orobica in February) whilst in defence she was always up for a battle, making decisive blocks and challenges.
Bartoli embodied the essence of both what it is to be a Roma player, and a Roma fan.
But Bartoli wasn’t the only Roma supporter involved in the side’s successes. Nineteen-year-old midfielder Giada Greggi was a bundle of energy in the middle of the park, and the passion and commitment she has for the club saw her take the captain’s armband in Bartoli’s absence in February’s Coppa Italia win over Roma CF.
She appears to have many years playing for the club that is in her blood waiting ahead of her.
Fellow midfielder Flaminia Simonetti is also a Roma fan since childhood, and particularly towards the end of the season, she showed her value to the team with a string of spirited performances. In the end, she reached five Serie A goals for the season, second only to forward Annamaria Serturini in the race to become Roma’s top scorer.
Elsewhere, Claudia Ciccotti and Manuela Coluccini both saw their progress somewhat disrupted by injuries, but the pair of Romaniste made big contributions when available.
Early goals key to success
Throughout the campaign, Roma performed at their best whenever they started quickly. Starting on the front foot meant that the Giallorosse imposed their dominance over their opponent, building on the sparks of momentum they produced early on.
The campaign was full of examples of early goals that proved to be the starting points for big wins.
Against Atalanta in November, Annamaria Serturini opened the scoring after six minutes – but that wasn’t the quickest goal Roma scored all season. Two months later, Claudia Ciccotti netted from close range three minutes into the 5-0 win over Tavagnacco, and in March, Maria Zecca went even better by scoring with a curled effort inside the first minute against Chievo – a goal that also kick-started a 5-0 win.
As long as Roma settled into the game early, they often went on to get all three points available. In the 10 league games in which they scored first, they won nine – the only exception being the 2-1 loss to Milan in December.
It proves that Roma are a mentally sharp team, and that they keep concentration levels high because of their immense will to win. Once Roma are given a way through, they are a formidable force.
Fighting spirit shown as Roma display never-say-die attitude
Of course, not every game started as brightly as those listed above. However, Roma tended to respond well to going behind.
In total, Bavagnoli’s side earned eight points from losing positions this season - only Florentia and Tavagnacco gained more in Serie A. This demonstrates the extent of Roma’s positive attitude and competitive mentality.
The team was always hungry to get results out of games, never once looking like they were chasing a lost cause. They kept fighting for every battle, always pushing for an equaliser or a winner, refusing to give up until the final whistle.
This hunger will serve them well for future campaigns, when they hope to be competing for titles. A winning mentality is a crucial part of the formula for any team that wants to win trophies, and even if some other aspects require a bit of fine-tuning before Roma can lift silverware, they know they have the most important element.
Goals not limited to one source
Although Serturini was Roma’s top scorer by the end of the season, she was certainly not the only option the Giallorosse had in attack. Roma’s goals came from all over the pitch, with 14 different players scoring in total.
As well as Serturini, the most decisive players in front of net were midfielder Simonetti, striker Martina Piemonte and left-back Bartoli, who all scored five times in all competitions.
Winger Agnese Bonfantini was not far behind with four - including both in a memorable come-from-behind win against Sassuolo.
All of Roma’s forwards scored at least one goal somewhere along the season, which is a positive sign. The fact that the team weren’t over-reliant on one player to get the goals, and perhaps that’s one of the factors that contributed to the great team spirit among the squad.
Roma play as a unit on the field and are a tight-knit group off the pitch as well. Whatever the situation, they work incredibly well as a team.
Strength in depth key
That Roma had such a high number of different goalscorers is testament to the strength in depth of the squad. Every position was covered with quality alternatives, something which must have been a blessing and a curse for Bavagnoli when choosing her lineups.
For example, the coach set Roma up with several different centre-back partnerships for various games, knowing that Emma Lipman, Federica Di Criscio, Allyson Swaby and Heden Corrado were all strong options with different qualities. Bavagnoli could adapt depending on the opponent.
The mid-season signing of Jamaican international Swaby was particularly important, as it meant midfielder Ciccotti could be pushed back into her natural position after having to cover at the back early in the campaign.
Unfortunately for Ciccotti, she sprained her knee ligaments in the cup match against Roma CF in February, ruling her out for the best part of two months. However, that proved to be an opportunity for Simonetti to break into the starting lineup, after she had impressed as a substitute – and she put in some impressive displays when her moment came too.
Attackers demonstrate their versatility
Roma’s front line were usually dangerous, attacking their opponents with pace, creativity and technique. But if things weren’t working, they were always ready to adapt.
Depending on the game, Bavagnoli made minor adjustments to her front three, switching their positions to alter the team dynamic. For example, Luisa Pugnali – who especially blossomed towards the end of the season, scoring Roma’s last goal of the campaign against Fiorentina – could be fielded either as a winger or a central striker. She had no problems adapting to either position, getting among the goals either way.
Wingers Serturini and Bonfantini were usually deployed on the left and right respectively, but if Roma needed to do something different, both were happy to swap. This flexibility not only kept the opponents guessing, but showed that Roma’s players could use their talents in different roles, giving them more ways to win.
That adaptability is an important component of a winning team, as they aren’t restricted by rigid systems or skillsets. Their versatility allows them to have a chance in games even when the initial formula doesn’t go to plan. With that in mind, it’s no wonder Roma looked like competing until the very end during most of their games.
Ideal balance of experience and youth
Roma had a younger squad than many of their rivals for their first season, with 27-year-old Bartoli counting as one of the more experienced players. The squad was definitely assembled with an eye for the future, and some of the youngsters have been delivering the goods ahead of schedule.
The younger players wouldn’t have been able to flourish to those levels, though, without the backbone of experience in the squad that helped them succeed. It started all the way back in goal, where Rosalia Pipitone, 33 years of age, was always a reliable presence. The Italian international was the stable figure in goal that all sides need, giving those in front of her maximum confidence.
Next, 30-year-old defender Lipman was the most frequently used centre-back, contributing to the side’s solid structure. Strong in the air and composed with the ball at her feet, Lipman was a key part of the spine of the team.
And one step further forward, Vanessa Bernauer, 31, brought organisation to the middle of the park. Sitting at the base of the midfield in the 4-3-3 that Bavagnoli usually set the team up in, the Swiss international was a metronomic presence with her rhythmic and precise passing from deep.
Even though it was sometimes the younger players who grabbed the headlines, the more senior members of the squad all showed their worth as well.
Roma must try to stop the season fizzling out
Unfortunately, despite all the progress shown over the season, Roma’s debut campaign didn’t end in the manner that the squad deserved. The final five games of the season brought no victories, including a heartbreaking defeat in the Coppa Italia semi-final, which denied them their first chance of silverware.
The reasons for the drop in form in the final weeks of the campaign are probably related to fitness issues – the squad has many young players who may still need to adapt to the physical (and mental) demands of competitive senior football.
Alternatively, perhaps the two international breaks that occurred towards the end of the season (including one which saw no Serie A game played for an entire month) disrupted Roma’s momentum a little. Maybe it was just fatigue from a long, eventful campaign.
A critic might argue that it could have been a matter of focus too. Perhaps when Roma knew they couldn’t finish higher than fourth, they took their foot off the gas a little. It didn’t look like it, though – the players put in a big effort in every game, right until the close of the season.
Whatever it was down to, Bavagnoli will surely be making the squad work hard to ensure a similar drop-off in form doesn’t happen again next year, when Roma will be hoping to challenge for honours until the very last stages of the season.
Performances against the top three crucial in closing the gap
So, how can the season be improved upon next time around? Fourth place always looked comfortable for Roma, but they did finish 15 points behind third, so they will be eager to cut the gap.
One aspect that will prove decisive in doing so is Roma’s ability to beat the bigger teams. Over the season, they didn’t manage to beat any of the three teams that finished above them. In contrast, champions Juventus took nine points out of a possible 12 from games against their fellow top three sides.
Without those points, Juventus would not have defended their Serie A title, so it shows just how important it is to pick up points against the teams you want to be competing with.
There were signs of progress for Roma that suggest they may be able to rattle Juventus, AC Milan and Fiorentina in the near future. Bavagnoli’s girls have come on a long way since they were beaten 4-0 by Juve in their first home game in October. This was highlighted in the return fixture in Turin, when only one goal separated the two sides.
In addition, at the end of the season, Roma were competitive against Fiorentina again. Having kept a clean sheet in a goalless draw for their first ever meeting in December, the Giallorosse also frustrated their Florence-based opponents when they met in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.
The first leg also ended as a draw, and whilst the second leg may have been more comfortable for Bartoli’s former side, Roma tested them again in the last league game of the season three days later, when a last-minute penalty was the only thing preventing the Giallorosse from securing another point.
If Roma can turn some of those losses against their title-challenging rivals into draws, and draws into wins, then they too could put themselves in contention at the top.
With another big name joining the league next year in the shape of Inter, who gained promotion from Serie B this term, it will be interesting to see how Roma fare in the more competitive fixtures that await them in 2019-20.
The future is bright
Make no mistake, this group of players can achieve big things if they grow together. The foundations are now in place for Roma to become a major player in women’s football in Italy.
As mentioned, this squad is young and has a lot of potential. Midfield dynamo Greggi is just 19, yet was Roma’s most-used player this season. With energy, determination and creativity, she can be a cornerstone of this Roma team for years to come.
Bonfantini – who cites Stephan El Shaarawy as her favourite player of all-time – is also only 19, and missed just one league game all season. The swift and hardworking winger ended up as the fourth highest scoring teenager in Serie A, beaten only by Verona’s Veronica Pasini, Juventus’ Benedetta Glionna and Tavagnacco’s Caterina Ferin.
The national team are now taking notice of Bonfantini as a result, with the forward making her senior Italy debut in March. Her former club, Inter Milan, will doubtless want her back now they are in Serie A - but keeping hold of Bonfantini would be a big boost to the Giallorosse going forward.
Roma’s two other teenagers, Angelica Soffia and Heden Corrado, were both assured presences at the back. Soffia in particular impressed, establishing herself as first-choice right-back, while Corrado showed maturity beyond her years in a more central role, having made her debut at just 16.
But it’s not just in the first team that Roma’s youth have been shining bright. The Primavera side reached the national final of their competition, and it took deep into sudden death penalties for Inter to beat them. Only the finest of margins denied them the crown of Italian champions at the first time of asking.
It was a remarkable effort from youth side, who gave us a glimpse of the talent coming through the ranks that will be hoping to join Bartoli, Greggi and company in the first team in forthcoming seasons.
Long-term, the future is bright. There’s so much potential to be excited about with this team. It’s been a rollercoaster ride in their first season, with plenty of great goals scored and important lessons learned, and these players will come out stronger as result.
They’ve given themselves a solid platform to build on, and if they stay together, a lot can be achieved.
The journey has just begun.