In the season’s first Derby del Sole, both sides trotted out injury affected lineups for this all important clash. Peres and Strootman’s absence meant both Jesus and Paredes were recalled to the starting XI and Florenzi slotted back in to RB while Radja filled the hole behind Dzeko in a 4-2-3-1.
From the onset Napoli were looking very dangerous in possession but just lacking class in the final third. It was almost like they needed a dominant striker with an intact cruciate ligament or one not addicted to money. As Roma struggled to hold on to the ball for more than two passes, the light blue shirts launched wave upon wave on the nervous back four.
Paredes and DDR were forced to sit deeper which opened up an autostrada for Napoli on the Roma flanks. Both Florenzi and Jesus were being comprehensively shredded by their opponents but the Naplitanos just couldn’t sort out that final ball.
On the few occasions Roma managed isolated counter-attacks, Dzeko showed off his unique lack of pace in promising situations while Radja and Salah just weren’t quite clicking together. The trequartista position just doesn’t seem to bring out the best in Radja, particularly when Paredes is nowhere to be seen.
As the match ticked along and Roma survived yet another assault from Hamsik and Co, Florenzi pounced onto a loose ball and launched a counterattack. A swarm of blue shirts snuffed out the threat and Koulibaly found himself with the ball as he attempted to shake of Salah’s half-hearted pursuit near the Napoli goal line.
In a quirk of fate, the big Senegalese defender tripped over his own feet, Salah pounced and sent in a quick and low cross. Ninja let it run passed him at the near post and then Edin Dzeko struck a sweet first time shot straight into the corner of the net. Roma was somehow up 0-1!
This goal was impressive largely due to the fact both Salah and Dzeko would have likely completely ballsed up their respective pass and shot this time last year. Progress!
A two footed Paredes yellow card later and Roma were back in the locker room to trade misogynistic banter… I kid! I kid! …to marvel at their halftime lead.
No sooner had we settled with our refilled espresso or bucket of luke warm dunkin donuts coffee, depending on where in the world you are, the action was dialling back up. Roma came out with some serious confidence, looking to add to their lead.
In the 53rd minute Dzeko drew an absurdly soft free kick by re-enacting the motions of someone taking a club to the back of their head. Florenzi whipped the ball in passed Manolas’ wavy hair and straight onto the noggin of our new favourite Bosnian. 0-2.
He didn’t even have to jump as the diabolical Napoli defending left him outmuscling his lone marker at the far post. Somehow, Roma were up by two Dzeko goals to 0.
Napoli responded immediately and substituted Gabbiadini, who had put in a shameful performance up front for them, for the always dangerous Mertens. And wouldn’t you know it, two minutes later they had pulled a goal back. Not through some gorgeous flowing attacking move but a corner. Yeah a bloody corner, and who else would head that home but our mate Koulibaly. Both Jesus and Dzeko were left looking culpable as the big man directed his free header passed Schzezny’s flapping hands.
The ensuing minutes produced manic end to end football. Roma never seem to look convincing with one goal leads and this instance was certainly no exception. Both Manolas and Fazio were magnificent in keeping the azzurri waves at bay.
Roma’s midfield continued to be swamped as Napoli poured forward for an equaliser and things began to look a little dicey when Radja appeared to tweak some sort of calf or hammie issue he had been carrying coming in to this match. Florenzi toed the ball out of play but the combative Belgian refused to come off.
Sensing an opportunity to avoid being blamed for screwing over Roma’s lead, Juan Jesus soon fell to the ground and began holding his leg in pain. Roma was up by a goal, away to a massive rival with less than half an hour to go. There was only one thing to do: bring on Emerson "Sepukku" Palmieri!
From there it was all hands on defensive deck and by the time Nainngolan limped off for Stephan El Shaw, Roma had given up on possessing the ball or attempting anything remotely offensive that would be conducive to scoring.
Sensing blood in the water, the Napoli defenders pushed further up the field to keep the ball pinned in their attacking half. This ploy rudely stabbed them in the back as De Rossi slipped an inch perfect first time ball into the newly vacated space behind Napoli’s defence to an onrushing Salah. We had seen this movie many times before, with Salah sprinting forward with only the keeper to beat. Yet this Hollywood remake was way better than the original as the Egyptian maestro calmly slotted his shot passed Pepe Reina and onto the correct side of the post and into the net.
Napoli 1 Roma 3.
And that is how it stayed despite late chances to El Sharaawy and Mertens.
Defeating Napoli at the San Paolo by two goals is a terrific result, but to do so without Stroot baby and Peres is another matter altogether. Roma defied expectations and reality in putting together this win and no small amount of thanks should go to Dzeko and Salah who produced refined finishing when it mattered most. Manolas continued his exceptional form to protect his keeper and Fazio further demonstrated to Rudiger he will have to work hard to reclaim his spot (as will the ghost of Vermaelen). On a side note, Paredes seriously struggled all match long as did the three fullbacks who were constantly bullied onto their heels.
This Napoli side was breathtakingly unlucky to produce as few genuine scoring opportunities as they did and I have no doubt the result would have been different if they could have relied on a big-bellied Argentine striker, like last year. As a matter of fact, this match was uncannily similar to watching Roma during Spalletti’s first reign around the 07/08 mark, except this time the fortune and goals were on the beautiful bald man’s side.
I’m unsure of where to go from here, as Bren pointed out to me earlier, I can’t remember the last time I had to write up the review of a winning Roma match. For now we are just 2 points away from the Juve summit, even if our on field performance can’t possibly continue to keep pace. This victory over Napoli provides a fantastic buffer in the champions league race and will certainly provide comfort should there be any 85th minute "Roma Happenings" in the coming weeks.
Is this team going to rip off the shackles and launch an assault on Serie A? Probably not, but stealing three points away against a legitimate rival is nothing to sniff at and a feather in the cap of Spalletti and his men and a fine way to start your weekend.