The 144th edition of the Derby del Sole kicks off Italy's pre-Easter celebrations on Saturday, with each side desperately trying to resurrect their suddenly reeling season. Heading into this match, each side has far more to worry about than the club on the opposite side. For Napoli, it's a matter of life and death. With Fiorentina only a point behind them, Rafa Benitez's club risks losing their tenuous grasp on Italy's final Europa League birth; a year with no continental football at all will be a tough pill to swallow for one of the league's most successful sides over the past five seasons, to say nothing of their ability to retain their star players.
As far as Roma is concerned, you don't really need me to remind you what's at stake, but I'll do it anyway. It's bad enough that Roma's deplorable run through 2015 has reduced their hold on second place to one point, but to think that we might lose a Champions League place to Lazio is simply too much to bear, so Roma needs this victory to both save their season and to save face in Eternal City.
We'll start, as always, by taking a quick look at the first fixture.
November 1, 2014: Napoli 2, Roma 0
I couldn't really find any highlights on this one, but who wants to relive that debacle? It was really the first taste of what we've grown to loathe so much over the past few months; mindless and/or wasted possession punctuated by half-chances at goal, many of which were squandered anyway. On this afternoon, Roma were ultimately done in by Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon.
While there's no reason to hang your head because of that—they're both excellent players—the most recent history of this rivalry has been extremely troubling. Over their past three matches, not only has Roma gone winless (losing all three, in fact), they've been outplayed to the tune of a 6-0 aggregate scoreline (all comps). Of course, prior to that, Roma ran off three straight victories, outscoring Napoli 7-3, so swings and roundabouts, I suppose.
The Second Coming
Tis the season for resurrections, but has this two week gap been enough for Roma to right themselves? While they received a bit of good news in the form of Leandro Castan's possible return this season, injuries and absences are still the order of the day.
While we're still hours away from the squad list being released, Rudi Garcia will assuredly be without Gervinho, Maicon, Seydou Keita and possibly Francesco Totti, in addition to the long-standing holdouts, Kevin Strootman, Federico Balzaretti (though he was seen in training this week) and the aforementioned Castan.
I'm quite certain we've discussed this before, but it's fitting that so much of Garcia's nominal front-line will be missing, since they've arguably been our greatest source of frustration. With Gervinho definitively out for three weeks, Juan Iturbe must step up to take some of the pressure off Adem Ljajic, while Seydou Doumbia simply needs to look like an actual footballer if he's to even temporarily fill Totti's shoes.
Behind them, Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan should be set to form their own stilted version of Voltron, though with his solid debut prior to the break, we're left to wonder if Salih Uçan has done enough to at least crack the regular rotation.
At the back...oof, god only knows. Given the way things are shaking out, it seems like Alessandro Florenzi is our right back for the remainder of the season, which, though far from ideal, isn't necessarily a calamity. Kostas Manolas will do his usual thing, while Davide Astori and Jose Cholebas will continue to confound football pundits the world over...do you realize that, based on whoscored's metrics, they've been two of Italy's highest performing defenders? For my money, Astori has been as advertised; a bit reckless, but pretty adept at breaking up plays, while Cholebas has been an enigma to me; there on minute, gone the next.
I usually try and dedicate a section of these to the opponent's form and functions, but consider this: Napoli has outscored Roma 6-0 over the past three fixtures (all comps), and five of those goals have been scored by either Higuain or Callejon. Napoli has won just one of their past six matches, so if Roma can keep those two under wraps, a draw is probably a reasonable expectation.
However, if Doumbia, Iturbe or even Victor Ibarbo can provide Roma with some fresh alternatives, they should be able to knock Napoli back on their heels.