While it doesn't carry the same municipal bloodlust as a Roma-Lazio encounter, the Derby del Sole has long been one of Serie A's best rivalries, frequently featuring some of the peninsula's most talented players, some wild scorelines, and plenty of heated exchanges. In their last six encounters, the titans of central and southern Italy have accounted for 22 goals and three red cards, and considering that a Champions League place may be at stake in tomorrow's rendition, both of those tallies may rise.
As is often the case this time of the year, the determining factor in Sunday's match may simply be who has the most able and/or law abiding bodies at the ready. For Napoli, the news is good, as they stand to benefit from the return of Gonzalo Higuain and Raul Albiol, while Roma will have to make do without the suspended Daniele De Rossi and an injured Francesco Totti.
But, before we discuss the specifics of this six pointer, a look back to October:
October 18, 2013: Roma 2, Napoli 0
I think now is an appropriate time to say our thanks that someone as talented as Ermes is a Roma fan, these videos are absolutely phenomenal.
Anyway, in what was the first true test of the season, Roma emerged with a victory in a match that saw eight cards and two Miralem Pjanic goals. Despite the tension in the air and the rampant clutching and grabbing through the midfield, this was actually a pretty open and end-to-end match, as Roma time and time again capitalized on the space left open by Napoli's advancing midfielders. On the whole, Roma's initiative garnered 12 successful dribbles, two more than their season average.
Of course, when you go end-to-end, your end is often exposed, and never was this more apparent than when Goran Pandev found himself one-v-one with Morgan De Sanctis in the waning moments of the first half. After sneaking behind the Roma defense, Pandev received a well-played chip in stride and suddenly found nothing but green acres between himself and a helpless MDS.
Pandev had the angle, the space, the control and even made DeSanctis commit to the ground, deftly placing the ball in the minute space between MDS' left arm and the ground. But, what happened next was damn near unbelievable.
DDR, beard flapping in the wind, had already chased down Pandev from nearly 50 yards, racing past him, Castan and even DeSanctis, to pull the ball off the goal line and keep the match level heading into half time.
Last week's punch to Mauro Icardi's jaw was the bad side of Danielino, but that right there? That is why he is the highest paid player in the league; tenacity, commitment and execution.
While both sides would threaten to break open the match, Gervinho and Miralem Pjanic would team up (sort of) to put this match away in the 45th minute. After nearly shaking Valon Behrami out of his boots, Gervinho drew a foul on Paolo Cannavaro, setting up the free kick from the sweetest of spots, just a touch past the penalty arc. Pjanic's free kick, a lovely bender into the top left corner, was practically picturesque.
Pjanic would strike again in the 71st minute, capitalizing on Cannavaro's take down of Marco Borriello in the box. Roma 2, Napoli 0.
Derby del Sole, done and dusted.
When these sides first met in October, we marveled at how Rafa Benitez's five man midfield was running roughshod over the league, passing, moving, possessing and supplying Gonzalo Higuain with shots for days.
But, many moons and multiple polar vortices have passed since then, so how have they fared since October?
Well, I'm afraid to say, not much has changed. Napoli is still passing extremely well, completing 84% of their passes (5th best), they're still not easily dispossessed, keeping 55.6% possession (5th best) and they still pepper opposing keepers with 15.3 shots per match, 4th best in Italy.
Despite playing to five draws in their last ten matches, Napoli still presents one of the more formidable attacks in all of Europe, so let's take a look at their key contributors
While on the surface it appears as though Hamsik has taken a turn for the worse the season-his goals, assists, shots, key passes, dribbles, crossing, long balls, through balls and total passes are all down from last year's marks-but, when you consider his slightly more restrained role this season, they start to make more sense.
Rather than being given freedom to roam in the Napoli offense, Benitez has given Hamsik a more defined role, serving as the central spark and final link to Gonzalo Higuain; perhaps the most critical role in any successful 4-2-3-1, which can sometimes lack front-to-back cohesion. And, when we take a deeper look at the form and shape of his depressed numbers, we actually see that Hamsik's performance in that stricter role is precisely why Napoli's offense has worked; he is the key to their offensive fluidity.
Hamsik's 2.2 key passes per match places him 9th in the league, but nearly 60% of those have occurred from roughly 18-30 yards out and dead center; in other words, just before Higuain's neighborhood. And it's not just the direct link to Higuain that benefits the Napoli offense, when Hamsik drops deeper to pick up the ball, he still has the vision, agility and intelligence to move the ball up and out to Lorenzo Insigne or Jose Callejon, spreading opposing defenses thin and opening chasms for Higuain to exploit.
So, whether he's providing the final link to Higuain or creating the conditions that lead to Higuain's three shots per match, Marek Hamsik is as important as ever to Napoli schemes, numbers be damned.
But now, let's shift our focus to the true focus of Napoli's offense.
While he was outplayed by several of his teammates through the fall, Napoli's signature summer purchase has looked every bit as advertised since then.
If one were to measure Higuain's importance to the Napoli offense, one needn't look any further than the number of goals in which he's factored. With 13 goals and seven assists, Higuain joins Luca Toni as the only men to rank top three in both categories. When we look at the top 25 scoring combinations in the league, Higuain factors in three of them: setting up three goals for both Callejon and Dries Mertens, while knocking home two goals from Pandev passes.
Higuain isn't a stand-alone forward, that's for sure; he's as much a facilitator as finisher. But, he is ostensibly a striker, so let's talk a bit about his function in that role, shall we?
Higuain's 2.9 shots per match ranks 10th in the league, which is impressive enough in and of itself, but it's the efficiency of those shots that stands out. Among the league's top five scorers (Carlos Tevez, Giuseppe Rossi, Ciro Immobile and Luca Toni), Higuain's 53% shot accuracy and 22% conversion rate each rank third. And when you consider he's logged more total minutes (all comps) than everyone but Tevez, his efficiency becomes more impressive. Given his prominence within their offense, Higuain has produced exceptional results week-in-week-out, in all competitions.
Much like Hamsik before him, Higuain's shooting statistics are as impressive as they are, in part, because he knows his role; knowing when and where to threaten the goal. With 77% of his league goals coming within the confines of the goal mouth, you won't catch Higuain taking many low percentage shots on the outskirts of the 18 yard box. There is precious little wasted movement or high risk attempts.
This is all just a long winded way of saying this: Gonzalo Higuain is disciplined, efficient, smart and effective. He knows where to go to find his own success, doing so with accuracy and efficiency, yet he has the ability to stray from this path to facilitate the offense of others.
And, just for good measure, here's what he's done across all competitions in 2014: seven goals, four assists, and eleven chances created.
Roma's Route to Victory
Listen, we could go on and on about the multitude of ways in which Napoli can beat you. Take a second look above you and you'll see nary a mention about Insigne, Mertens, Ghokan Inler, Jorginho or Raul Abiol. They are an extremely deep team, particularly in the midfield, and it all comes to a head with Higuain, who is cementing himself as one of the league's more dynamic hitmen, contributing in nearly all facets of the game, while remaining the focal point of his club's offense.
Combating the 4-2-3-1 often times comes down to the degree to which your fullbacks can exploit the space created by the opposing midfielders, who are often given free range in advanced/wide positions. Fortunately for Roma, Rudi Garcia will have his Brazilian duo, Maicon and Dodo, dressed and ready to play, each of whom is far more gifted in the offensive aspects of the flank game.
In their first league encounter, Dodo and Maicon were both effective in getting up the flanks and exploiting the space left by Callejon and Mertens, as the Brazilian boys combined for five successful dribbles and drew two fouls, and generally forced Napoli's midfielders to spend a great deal of time tracking back to recover that lost ground. Keep an eye on this tomorrow; this will be front and center in the Garcia vs Benitez tactical battle.
Similarly, if Pjanic, Kevin Strootman, and Radja Nainggolan can keep Napoli's three midfielders in a relatively confined space, the flanks become even more fertile for counter attacking opportunities, which, if all goes according to plan, should give Gervinho and Florenzi plenty of room to run and Christian Maggio and Faouzi Ghoulam.
Beyond tactical nuances, if Roma are to leave Naples with three points, they'd be best served by jumping to an early lead. Through the season first 26 weeks, Napoli has only spent an average of 12.5% of their matches trailing, which is fourth behind Juventus, Roma and, oddly enough, Parma. Of Napoli's 29 goals conceded, only 27.6% have allowed their opponents to seize the lead.
To put this in a slightly simpler format, consider this: 55% of Napoli's goals scored have come in the first half, compared to only 41% of Roma's, which is actually among the league's worst marks. Indeed, when we look back at the last six editions of the Derby del Sole, Roma has only scored four first half goals, which is actually more than Napoli, but given their proclivity for scoring in the first half this season, Roma would be best served by seizing the day early.
Second Place or Bust
At the end of the day, Roma and Napoli are about as even a matchup as this league has to offer. Both sides are efficient and effective in movement, both sides create quality scoring chances, and both sides have a tremendous amount of attacking talent.
What is truly ironic, and what might prove to be the breaking point in this match, are the clubs respective goal scoring performances from half-to-half. As we just mentioned, Napoli is among Serie A's most prolific first half offenses, scoring 55% of their goals in the first 45 minutes, which, of course, means that only 45% of their goals come in the second half, which is among the lower ranks of the league.
Well, Roma is the exact opposite, and sports an even starker contrast, scoring 60% of their goals in the second half.
So, in this fight to secure second place, something has got to give. One side must manage to break their seasonal trends, and without Totti and De Rossi, they key to flipping the script may ultimately rest with Roma's fullbacks.