The Serie A season was over until it wasn’t, a goal in the 91st minute at the Stadio Olimpico ensuring that we get one more game yet. Paulo Dybala’s penalty, scored just before 11pm local time, secured Europa League football for Roma but condemned opponents Spezia to a relegation playoff. They must defend their top-flight status against Verona next weekend after finishing level in 18th place.
Not since 2005 has a season ended this way. Serie A had done away with playoffs and playouts, using head-to-head records as a tie-breaker instead. Their reintroduction was announced last summer, to be used only for deciding title winners or relegation spots. Where teams contesting those most essential targets ended on equal points, final standings would be established with a one-off match at a neutral ground.
Spezia and Verona knew the possibility when they kicked off on Sunday, starting the day level and facing daunting away trips to Roma and Milan. Yet each had moments of hope on a night of seesawing emotion. It was Spezia who struck first at the Olimpico, the centre-back Dimitrios Nikolaou heading home at close range on the second ball in from a free-kick.
Roma equalised before half-time, Nicola Zalewski’s in-swinging cross from the left eluding everyone to sneak in at the back post. Yet Spezia were on track for survival again moments later as news came through that Olivier Giroud had put Milan 1-0 up against Verona.
Marco Zaffaroni’s team carried the weight of mistakes made the previous weekend, when a 95th-minute own-goal cost them victory at home to Empoli. Now they had no choice but to throw everything at Milan. In the 72nd minute, Darko Lazovic spun away from his marker at a throw-in and flicking the ball over the keeper for Marco Faraoni to head home. The relegation playoff was back on.
Yet parity did not last long. Rafael Leão restored Milan’s lead with a gliding run and finish, then made it 3-1 in injury time. Verona’s last hopes rested on Roma beating Spezia. The good news was that the Giallorossi were motivated, needing a win to make sure they finished ahead of Juventus and claimed the last Europa League spot. The bad news was that they were wobbling.
Szymon Zurkowski had a chance to win the game for Spezia, running clear of the last defender to meet a square ball from Mbala Nzola, but missed the target from eight yards. Roma should have had a penalty moments later when Arkadiusz Reca mistimed a challenge on Dybala, but the Argentinian then risked a red card when he reacted to a foul in midfield by raising his hands to Kelvin Amian.
The spot-kick that Roma were awarded instead at the end of normal time felt generous, Amian punished for going shoulder to shoulder with Stephan El Shaarawy. The Frenchman was shown a second yellow card to boot. Dybala, after a lengthy delay, swept a fine penalty into the left corner.
Sassuolo 1-3 Fiorentina, Torino 0-1 Inter, Cremonese 2-0 Salernitana, Empoli 0-2 Lazio, Napoli 2-0 Sampdoria, Atalanta 5-2 Monza, Lecce 2-3 Bologna, Milan 3-1 Hellas Verona, Roma 2-1 Spezia, Udinese 0-1 Juventus
Verona’s game finished, leaving them trapped in limbo, waiting for updates from Rome, where the referee Fabio Maresca allowed an extraordinary 14 minutes of injury time. It was not enough for Spezia to find a way back. A 2-1 defeat meant they finished the day where they had begun it, tied with Verona on 31 points.
An announcement on the time and venue for their playoff is expected on Monday. If the game finishes in a draw after 90 minutes, it will go straight to penalties.
Zaffaroni chose to see the positives, saying: “When you consider where we started from, this is a great result.” Verona were bottom of the table when he took over in December, with five points from their first 15 games.
Spezia’s Leonardo Semplici struggled a little more for a positive spin. He lamented the penalty awarded against his team, saying he had not seen the incident well but that his players told him it should not have been given. He pointed out that under last year’s rules his side would already be safe thanks to having taken four points from their two meetings with Verona. Still, Semplici thanked his players for giving their all against Roma, concluding that: “If we play with this level of desire, we have a good chance in the playoff.”
For better or worse, next Sunday, Spezia and Verona will have the stage to themselves. On this one, there were other dramas intertwined with their own. Roma guaranteed Europa League football for another season, perhaps José Mourinho’s future along with it. A gesture made by the manager at full-time, looking at fans and pointing a finger at the ground, has been interpreted to mean he will stay.
José #Mourinho rassicura i tifosi. A suo modo, ma il gesto fatto ai romanisti sotto la Monte Mario Nord vale più di mille parole. Mentre fa il giro di campo il tecnico della Roma, con il dito, dice ai tifosi: “Io resto qui”. #CorrieredelloSport #ASRoma #RomaSpezia pic.twitter.com/skSddtIIxO
— Corriere dello Sport (@CorSport) June 4, 2023
Perhaps there are no other offers waiting. Reports in France on Sunday suggested that Paris Saint-Germain have lost interest, and Mourinho’s toxic behaviour at the Europa League final, where verbally abused referee Anthony Taylor in the car park after being cautioned together with several members of his coaching staff for repeatedly pressuring officials during the game, may have cooled the market for his services.
In Rome, though, he remains adored. There were several banners hailing him at the Olimpico on Sunday, one of them demanding “José Mourinho for 1,000 years”.
At San Siro, Milan supporters were bidding farewell to a hero of their own. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored 156 goals in Serie A and won two of his five Scudetti with Milan, confirmed his retirement in an emotional address to supporters at the end of their win over Verona. Ultras choreographed the word “Godbye” in giant letters across the Curva Sud.
Ibrahimovic thanked his family, the club, teammates, coaches, directors, staff and, “last but not least”, the fans, promising them they would “catch me around, if you’re lucky!” At one point he interrupted his flow to respond to Verona supporters trying to drown him out from the away section. “Go on, whistle,” he goaded. “Seeing me is the best moment of your year.”
A truer highlight might arrive in six days’ time if Verona can beat Spezia. If not, they will be relegated from the top flight. An all-or-nothing occasion the likes of which Serie A has not known for 18 years. One more game at the end of a season extended already by the World Cup wedged in the middle. A treat for everyone … except the two teams involved.