Roma v Napoli Preview

Valerio Pennicino

In what is surely the matchup of the season, second place Napoli ventures up to Rome to take on the first place Giallorossi. With little separating the two sides, expect a thriller on Friday evening.

If we proclaim this as the "true start" to Roma's miraculous season, we'd be doing Inter a disfavor; after all, they were, for large stretches of that match, the superior side. Even the best of clubs can't steamroll their opponents each and every week, sometimes you have to iron out a victory from a wrinkled mess. By taking advantage of the opportunities when they presented themselves, Roma stole a victory from a match that all good sense and reason suggested they shouldn't have.

Remember, going into that match, Inter was Nas to Roma's Jay-Z, Iron man to Roma's Batman, their swimsuit issue to anything a 12-year old can find on the Internet. Close in so many ways, but still not quite as good.

As you were probably aware, when it comes to Roma, one thing is axiomatic. We have Francesco Totti and you don't.

The international break is over; and while it's a new week and a new opponent, the story may prove the same.

While Roma leads Serie A in goals allowed and conceded, Napoli has been nearly their equal, scoring 18 goals to Roma's 20, while allowing only four. Though, compared to the lone goal Roma has conceded, their defense looks down right decrepit.

Roma v.Napoli: 20:45 CET, 14:45 EDT Stadio Olimpico Roma, Italia

Of course, with Roma's amazing start, anyone is bound to pale by comparison. However, when we're talking about Napoli, we're dealing with a side that has claimed one of Serie A's European spots in each of the past four seasons. And, while they're not exactly reliving the Diego Maradona days, Napoli has been a side to reckon with the past several years, generally being one of the leagues strongest and most consistent sides.

Even after an offseason of upheaval, were it not for Roma's mad dash out of the gate, Napoli would be enjoying a five point cushion atop the table. With a roster laden with talent and funds at their disposal, Napoli show no signs of relenting. So, how exactly have Rafa Benitez's boys been doing it?

Getting to Know Napoli

Should Napoli capture the Scudetto this year, they'd better give a shout out to Real Madrid for parting ways with Gonzalo Higuaín and José Callejón, as the pair have accounted for seven of Napoli's eighteen goals. While Higuaín was the big capture of the summer, with a price tag of €10m, the return on Callejon may prove to be the more impressive, as he's currently scoring on nearly 31% of his shots, nearly twice as efficient as his more expensive teammate.

But goals are really just the tip of the iceberg, if you want the real story of Benitez's success, look at the five men behind Higuaín. Napoli has been getting outstanding performances thus far from the quintet of Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne, Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dezemaili and the aforementioned Callejon. This palm full of Partenopei has helped Napoli maintain nearly 57% possession and a league best 87% passing precision, resulting in 16 shots per match, 6.4 shots on target per match, 11.9 dribbles per match and 82 chances created, all within the league's top five in those respective categories.

Napoli holds and moves the ball extremely well, creating and countering from deep, working the ball from the flanks through Inler, Hamsik, and Insigne, before eventually meandering its way to Higuaín. Simply put, they are a complete offensive side, possessing the size, speed, precision and creativity to score virtually anywhere on the pitch; left, right or center, deep in the six and out beyond the eighteen, where their six goals pace Serie A.

If you've followed these previews so far, you've noticed that I like to spotlight a few key matchups or players. Given how complete and complex the Napoli attack is, it will take a concerted effort from Garcia to put the restraints on Benitez's attack. So, take your pick, it doesn't really matter, they're all good and they can all cause problems. However, there is one player that stands above the rest, both in terms of performance and intrigue.

Making the shift to a more traditional fullback role seems to have brought the best out of Juan Zuñiga. Beyond being Napoli's highest rated player this season, Zuñiga is far outstripping his per match statistics from last season. Through seven weeks, Zuñiga has more than doubled his dribbles per match, added a tackle per game, while nearly doubling his key passes and completing 88% of his passes.

Zuniga has flat out dominated Napoli's left flank, from end-to-end, being both the last line of defense and the igniter of an extremely left-leaning attack. Thanks in part to his movement, creativity, and vision, Napoli has enjoyed great success up and down the left side of the pitch. With 37% of their attack starting on his side, resulting in 31% of their actual shots coming from this same direction, Zuniga's influence on Napoli's offensive is pretty evident. Zuniga's link up play with Callejon, Hamsek and eventually Higuain has been the key to Napoli's offensive cohesion. Throw in his defensive contributions, and you've got the best fullback in the Italian game at the moment.

Restarting Roma

Part of what makes this the matchup of the Serie A season so far is this; as good as Napoli has been in nearly every facet of the game, Roma has been better. Pick your database, no matter where you look the leaderboards are littered with Romans. Scoring, there's Alessandro Florenzi and Adem Ljajic. Passing and playmaking, you've got Francesco Totti and Miralem Pjanic. Defense, you've got Mehdi Benatia. Shoot, even Morgan De Sanctiis has six clean sheets.

With two supremely talented and evenly matched teams meeting up in an early season six pointer, this is, in every way, shape, and form, a titanic matchup. As there is no discernible advantage for either side, the victor may very well be the one who best shakes off the international rust.

Often times, when there is no marked advantage and when both teams are stuck in the mire, it's the moments of individual brilliance that separate three points from one. With the amount of talent on both sides of the ball Friday evening, only the true genius shall prevail.

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