Roma make the short trip down the coast to face Napoli, hoping to carry December's success into 2013. But without Marquinhos, can the Roma defense corral Cavani and company?
By most accounts, Roma's field trip to Disney World was a success. No one got hurt, nobody's luggage got lost, and Zeman didn't get kicked out of the Magic Kingdom for smoking.
The trouble with vacations, of course, is that they end. The problems and stresses from which you fled are still hovering overhead, ready to drop on you like a ton of bricks the moment you return. For Roma, that menacing piece of masonry is an away tilt to fifth place Napoli, holders of a slim two point lead over Roma.
Making matters worse, Roma are missing the suddenly in demand Marquinhos, thanks to an ill-advised meeting of hand and ball against Milan. That this is even a story is testament to how far he has come in such short order, already garnering bids of nearly €30m from The Southwest London Mercenaries Football Club (Chelsea for the layman).
Fortunately for the Giallorossi, despite Napoli's 33 goals and +16 goal differential, they have been the anti-Roma this season, coming out the gates with guns blazing, only to see their form falter as 2012 wore on, dropping four of six matches across all competitions, whereas Roma have come away victorious in five of their past six.
But when you're dealing with Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and the rest of the crew, you can never take anything for granted. Cavani is up to his usual tricks, scoring 13 goals, while Hamsik has turned in an impressive Seven ‘N Seven, tallying an equal amount of goals and assists. Former Zeman prodigy, Lorenzo Isnigne has turned in an impressive full-time Serie A debut thus far, putting four in the back of the net and assisting on a further three goals.
But when you talk about Napoli, you must talk about their midfield quintet. With Hamsik slotted in the hole behind the forwards, the remainder of Sunday's fab five should feature Juan Zuniga, Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami, and Christian Maggio. Napoli, thanks in part to that dense midfield, has maintained 53.5% possession this term, good for 5th in the league, one spot behind Roma. Maggio and Inler have also accounted for a combined five goals and three assists, while Zuniga and Behrami are completing nearly 90% of their passes.
Once Roma manages to weave their way through that minefield, they'll be left to face a weakened three man Napoli defense, as Paolo Cannavaro is also out on suspension. With or without Cannavaro, you have to be impressed with the performance of the Partenopei defense, who, despite fielding only three at the back, has conceded only 17 goals, second fewest in the league.
Napoli has relied on their three talented defenders, their congested midfield and the supreme talents of Hamsek and Cavani to subdue their opponents.
So with Francesco Totti's status remaining uncertain for Sunday, can Roma carry their December momentum into the New Year?
Aside from Totti's ‘will he or won't he' drama, the mere presence of Pablo Osvaldo is suddenly up for debate. Should Totti not start on Sunday, there is a good chance the front three could consist of Erik Lamela, Mattia Destro and Miralem Pjanic, as rumors of a possible sale might see PDO stashed away on the bench for posterity's sake.
If that is indeed the case, the trio of Michael Bradley, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi should be tipped for the midfield. Given that those are three of Roma's highest revving engines, the promotion of Pjanic to the front three might work out for the best in the end. Roma will have its hands full attempting to corral Napoli's five man midfield, while simultaneously attempting to cut off the supply lines to Cavani and Goran Pandev, so Roma's middle third will need to cover more ground than usual, making the always intangible hustle of Bradley, DDR and Florenzi suddenly more relevant to success.
Even if Roma manage to get a stranglehold on Napoli's midfield, there's still the small matter of Cavani, Hamsek, Insigne and Pandev; a worrisome matter under the best of circumstances, let alone without your best defender.
While he's not yet donning the blue of Boca Juniors, Nicolas Burdisso will be pressed into service in Marquinhos' absence, slotting next to Leandro Castan. Fresh off his goal against Milan and steadfast in his commitment to the club, Nico should have added fuel in his fight to remain in Rome.
It is somewhat ironic, and testament to Marquinhos'ability that the absence of a teenager is providing a veteran with an opportunity to prove his worth to the club. Although his wages make him transfer fodder, this is the exact scenario in which a player like Burdisso is most valuable, conscripted into duty on short notice against a formidable opponent.
Beyond that, the remainder of the back half remains intact, as Federico Balzaretti, Ivan Piris and Mauro Goicoechea all figure to start. With transfer rumors connecting Maarten Stekelenburg everywhere from Milan to Fulham, it's safe to assume Goicoechea won't be going anywhere anytime soon, so, needless to say, his performance on the back half of the schedule is paramount to Roma's European hopes.
Sunday's encounter marks the official end to the first half of the 2012-2013 Serie A season, with return fixtures against Catania, Inter and Bologna closing out the first month of 2013. The battle for Europe figures to be an intense one, as Roma, Napoli, Inter, Fiorentina, Lazio, Milan and even Parma are within shouting distance of the top five.
With 18 matches in the books, Roma can no longer blame conditioning or acclimation for any troubles they encounter, the onus is now squarely on the players focus and execution. Although Roma rang out 2012 in resounding fashion, the Scudetto appears to be Juventus' to lose, so in the race for second place, a fast start to 2013 is absolutely essential.
Vacation is over, so put away your Mickey Mouse ears and cash in your Disney dollars, because it's back to reality...Europe is beckoning.