While the rain may have temporarily granted Roma a reprieve from their compact February schedule, tomorrow's tilt, the first leg of the Coppa Italia Semi-Final against Napoli, offers no further quarter. Roma, winners of three straight matches, play host to a suddenly reeling Napoli side, fresh off a humiliating 3-0 defeat to Atalanta over the weekend. But messing with the Kings of Campania is never an easy task, so let's take a quick look at what Rudi Garcia needs to do to hold serve in the first leg.
The story heading into tomorrow evening's Coppa Italia Semi-Final between Roma and Napoli is one of weather, specifically, precipitation; what it's done and what it will do, both to the pitch and to the squad. If we throw out Sunday's ten minutes of courtesy football, Roma enter this match on nearly a ten day break, so the spring in their steps may be just as important as the saturation in the sod.
So sayeth Monsieur Garcia:
A rest could benefit us and it could not, Napoli played and lost though, and I think that'll have an effect. From a physical point of view we'll be fine, but we won't be in the rhythm that you have when you play - we haven't taken to the field for 10 days now.
Really, were this not Roma we're discussing, it probably wouldn't even matter, but, as we all know, the Coppa Italia means just a bit more to the Capitoline crew. Speaking to his club's approach and intent in the Coppa Italia, particularly in light of a still plausible Scudetto chase, Garcia had this to say:
We want to play always at 100%. We must be careful to read the rankings, because we have played a game less and we might think we have three points more, but it is not, we have to play it. But about Napoli, the Olimipico will be a great environment for the game. You do not play 90 minutes, it's played over two legs, each goal is important and every detail is important more than usual
The problem maybe will be on the return leg, we'll see, but I do not like making calculations. I know that all these four games are at the same level of importance and the players know that they are all important, because we have four games and each one must be ready to play and give his best, what they have been doing from the beginning of the season
While Roma must not overlook Napoli, particularly on such a stage, the season's final Derby della Capitale looms on Sunday, but that's just the start of an extremely frantic February. Beyond the weekend, the return leg of the semi-finals takes place in Naples on the 12th, then it's back to Rome on the 16th to play Sampdoria, away to Bologna on the 22nd, then back at the Olimpico on March 1st for the always intense Inter Milan fixture. It's an extremely compact and critical four weeks, both for present glory and future financial gain.
Before we take a more specific look at tomorrow's match, one last ounce of insight from Garcia:
What matters is the time of the season in which you play. After the break we played a league match and the Coppa Italia was three days later, and so it was important not to play three games in a row with the same players. "Today is different. I think Napoli will play tomorrow with their best players. The ambition must be to get to the final, we'll play at 100%
The Semi-Final Setup
First things first, who's in and who's out.
The most noticeable point of weakness is at the rearguard, but, what else is new, right? With Federico Balzaretti's continued absence and the newly infirmed Dodo, Roma is without their two nominal leftbacks, leaving Garcia to rely solely upon Maicon and Vasilis Torosidis. In the immediate sense, this isn't really cause for concern; world beaters they're not, but they're both solid professionals. The question of who covers them in case of injury, fatigue, or suspension is a bit more vexing, particularly with the uncertain health of Roma's newest imports.
Rafael Toloi, while assuredly a central defender, would, at the very least, offer Garcia some rotational flexibility. Unfortunately, Roma's newest Brazilian picked up some sort of Trans-Atlantic ailment en route from Rio, leaving the backup fullback duties largely to Toloi's presumed mentor, Rodrigo Taddei, and the newly acquired Michel Bastos, who could make his club debut at some point in the next week, if not tomorrow evening.
However, as this is a cup match, there is a bit of good news, the availability of Radja Nainggolan, who was suspended for Sunday's league romp in the rain. Although Nainggolan has availed himself exceedingly well in his brief Roma career, look for the usual trio of Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic to get the nod in support of Francesco Totti, Gervinho and Alessandro Florenzi up top.
As far as Napoli is concerned, despite their blanking at the hands of German Denis and Atalanta, Rafa Benitez's boys are the league's third most prolific side. Since the calendar flipped to 2014, the triumvirate of Gonzalo Higuain, Dries Mertens and José Callejón has accounted for eight goals and four assists. Where Napoli is particularly potent is the counter, where Ghokan Inler and Raul Abiol are especially adept at catching opponents at their most vulnerable, linking up with Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo in Isigne or Goran Pandev, who provide a lighting quick supply line to Higuain and friends.
But, what good is a potent offense if you allow the likes of Atalanta to run circles around you? Therein lies the Benitez conundrum. Get head of Napoli, and you're golden, as they've yet to earn a come from behind victory in league play. Part and parcel of this is the effectiveness of Benitez's substitution patterns, or lack thereof to be more precise. Through 22 matches, Benitez has made 62 substitutions, from which Napoli has only reaped two goals and three assists. Of course, in isolation, that doesn't mean much until you consider his peers. Rudi Garcia has made 63 substitutions of his own, from which Roma has netted six goals and thirteen assists.
Furthermore, when Napoli loses, they lose big. In addition to the shock value, Sunday's drubbing at the feet of Atalanta was Napoli's second loss by three goals; not the league's worst mark, mind you, but it takes on a new pale when dealing with a club as large as Napoli. On the whole, Napoli has conceded two or more goals in nearly 37% of their matches, with a particular penchant for conceding late goals on the road.
Plain and simple, Napoli has attacking talent for days, but a relatively impotent bench and a nasty habit for conceding late goals away from Naples, both of which should play to Roma's advantage being the more rested side. That is, of course, if they even play this match. The rain hasn't really relented since this weekend, leaving the pitch precious little drainage time and, making matters worse, the forecast calls for a 50% chance of rain tomorrow.
The First Leg is The Dampest
When we factor in everything, the duel effects of Roma's unexpected rest, Napoli's down trodden spirits, and the damp pitch, this has all the makings of an ugly match, one that may ultimately come down to set pieces. And, hey, wouldn't you know it, Roma's 12 set piece goals is not only tied with Juve for the league lead, but doubles Napoli's mark.
Last year's parade through the semi-finals required two one-goal victories and an unexpected flourish from Mattia Destro. With rain in the forecast and two clubs with extremely dense schedules, expect no different this time around. The only question will be, who is this year's Destro?