If you can pull yourself away from the majesty of team ice dancing or the bong addled excitement of slopestyle for a moment, there is a football match tomorrow you might be interested in. Roma, with the slimmest of advantages, travel down the boot to take on Napoli in the second leg of the Coppa Italia Semi-Final.
Heading into the first leg, Roma were focused and well-rested, coming off an abbreviated, rain-soaked match against Parma, while Napoli was seemingly on the brink of collapse, still reeling from the shock of a 3-0 loss to Atalanta. Well, things have changed a bit heading into the second leg. This time around, it's Roma who enter the Coppa Italia with frayed nerves, having wasted an opportunity to gain ground on Juve by dropping two points to Lazio. Napoli, for their part, enter the semi-final on a high, having disposed of Milan 3-1 in relatively short order, even pushing Mario Balotelli to tears.
Before we take a look at the specifics of the second leg, let's take a quick trip back in time, some 170 odd hours ago...
February 5, 2014: Roma 3, Napoli 2
While Kevin Strootman's Dutch Delight will be the lasting image of the first leg, it was really a tale of Roman miscues ruining what was otherwise a golden opportunity. Gervinho broke the ice on this match in the 13th minute. In what is quickly becoming his signature goal, Gervinho took an absolutely perfectly threaded ball from Francesco Totti, burned past the fullbacks, his momentum barreling him towards the goal, barely skirted around the splayed out keeper, and had enough balance left to toe poke it home.
Strootman would follow 20 minutes later with an absolutely absurd left footed stunner from at least 25 yards out, pushing Roma to a 2-0 advantage and seemingly setting his side up for a cake walk in the second leg. That is, until, Gonzalo Higuain struck in the 46th minute, sort of. The official scorer's ledger credited Morgan De Sanctis with an own-goal, but taking a second look at it, it certainly seems like Higuain did enough to reap the reward; MDS' parrying did just enough (or little, I suppose) to guide it goalwards.
In the 70th minute, Dries Mertens showed exactly why he's held in such high acclaim. Starting the playoff with a, dare I say it, Totti-esque back heel, Mertens proceeded to work a lovely one-two with Higuain, completely breaking Leandro Castan's ankles in the process (this is a term closely associated with basketball used when an attacker makes a move to avoid, escape or get around a defender and, in the process, causes the defender to lose their balance, stumble and generally look the fool...Dries did that to Castan), and blowing one past MDS.
Gervinho would play the role of the hero, however, pushing another one past Jose Reina in the 88th minute to seal the 3-2 victory. Roma escaped with the victory, but may have squandered their advantage in the process.
While we usually offer a brief recap in these scenarios, it may seem strange to have dedicated three paragraphs to a match that's only a week in our memories, but the affairs of that day will be instrumental to the narrative of tomorrow's second leg. It would have been quite fitting if Strootman's golazo (or its Dutch equivalent) would have propelled Roma to a 2-0 victory and a virtual place in the final, but life is seldom that easy, in case you hadn't noticed.
While there was little anyone could've done to stop Dries, MDS flub could prove epic, so let's take a quick look at how Roma can keep Napoli under their thumb for 90 more minutes.
Second Leg Scenario
The first thing we must keep an eye, of course, is the aggregate score. With only a one goal margin, Roma was already going to be on eggshells, but throw in Napoli's two away braces, and this match becomes absolutely fra-gee-lay. We'll spare you the time and not dissect every scenario, but just know this, in order for us to breathe a collective sigh of relief, Roma must win by at least one, or, at the very worst, play to a draw, scoreless or otherwise.
Given the tenuous nature of Roma's lead, not to mention the stakes, Rudi Garcia's approach in the early moments of this match could be quite telling. If we look at the minutes doled out over the weekend, Garcia's midfield composition for this match could be the first indicator of his intentions. With Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman each going the full 90, and with Miralem Pjanic logging nearly 80 minutes of his own, this match is positively screaming for Rajda Nainggolan, to say nothing of what will assuredly be Napoli's balls-to-the wall approach requiring a greater defensive presence.
Granted, we have yet to see a midfield of DDR, Strootman and Nainggolan, but if Rudi were ever to truly park the bus for 90 minutes, can you think of a more combative midfield in all of Italy, or the world for that matter? While this may still be a distant possibility, there are a few compelling reasons for Rudi Garcia to opt for this lineup.
First, as we just mentioned, Napoli has nothing to lose in this match, giving Rafa Benitez ample reasons to throw everything he's got at the Roman defense. Remember, all they have to do is score one goal and they're in, provided Roma doesn't score, of course. What better way to counter Higuan, Mertens and Marek Hamsik than three resolute midfielders capable of winning and keeping possession?
The second point really follows the first. With Roma ostensibly relying on four midfielders for the rest of the season, Garcia is really faced with this dilemma each and every week. However, in this instance, one of the four, Pjanic, is a decidedly more offensive threat, one whose impact could be muted in such a potentially gritty match. Furthermore, with a decidedly feebler opponent on tap for next weekend, Garcia could get by without the defensive contributions of Strootman or DDR against Sampdoria on the 16th.
Lastly, I mean, come on....seriously, come on. Can you even imagine the sight of those three side-by-side? De Rossi, Strootman and Nainggolan could throw up a blockade that would've made JFK seethe with jealousy.
**Nevermind, Nainggolan is suspended for this match. The lesson, as always, measure twice, cut once. But the broader point remains relevant, Roma need to clamp down the midfield**
The other story to keep an eye on, as far as the rotation is concerned, is the extent to which Garcia utilizes Totti and Gervinho. While Gervinho is riding high, he's played the full 90 in four straight matches and six out of the eight matches in 2014. He's become in indispensable part of Garcia's attack this winter, but at some point, even he will need a rest. Totti, meanwhile, saw 83 minutes against Lazio, while logging 65 additional minutes in the first leg of the semi-final.
While the selection of the forwards has a somewhat different effect on the defensive shape of the club, if Garcia leaves either of these men on the bench, instead opting for the endurance of Alessandro Florenzi and the rested legs of Mattia Destro, we can assume the order of the day is hold steady.
At the back end, the options are far less limited, so expect the same quartet we've seen the past few weeks, though the defensive pressure and responsibility on the shoulders of Maicon and Vasilis Torosidis will be exponentially higher.
One Step Away
Well, that's the long and short of it really, we've seen enough of Napoli this season to know how they operate. The trio of Mertens, Higuain and Hamsek is volatile and varied, they can expose any number of flaws in virtually any defense, even one as stern as Roma. Even if you can contain them, you're still left with Lorenzo Insigne, José Callejón and even Ghokan Inler to contend with. But, as we saw just last week, Benitez's defense is pretty poor by comparison, so, if he's feeling bold, Garcia could even press the matter, grab an early goal, and then throw up the palisades.
With a shot at a shot at history (follow me there), Roma will have to walk the tightest of wires to secure their place in the Coppa Italia finale. Conceding two late goals at home, then having to travel to one of the tougher environments in all of Italy to hold that lead, is a quintessentially old-Roma problem. In alternate universe, Roma would blow this lead thanks to some sort of Mexes red-card, a Doni blunder, or a Cicinho turnover turning into a 70-yard romp towards an open Roma goal.
But Rudi Garcia has exposed us to an alternate reality, one in which Roma is not only competent, but capable; capable of coming from behind, capable of protecting a lead, and capable of putting away an opponent.
In order to advance to the finale, Roma may need all three tomorrow.