In the buildup to the Derby del Sole, we stressed the make or break nature of this match, and while that may have been a bit hyperbolic, three essential points were on the line today as Roma welcomed Napoli to the sparsely occupied Olimpico. With a victory, Roma could open up a commanding eight point lead over third place Napoli, virtually securing (to the extent possible with this club) second place. A loss, however, would shrink that gap to a mere two points, setting up a spring fraught with anxiety.
With the stink of their 2-0 loss to Lazio on Wednesday fresh in their (and our) collective memories, Roma desperately needed a convincing victory today. No doubt, no equivocation, just come right out and ram the ball down Napoli’s throat—might as well throw in an Edin Dzeko brace or Radja Nainggolan screamer for good measure. Whatever the case, Roma needed to make a statement today.
If you’ve been following this club for any decent amount of time, you’re all too familiar with what actually happened; the exact opposite. While Roma weren’t disastrous—Diego Perotti and Nainggolan played decent enough—it was Napoli who came out and seized the initiative. Dries Mertens and Marek Hamsik were as advertised, quick, instrumental and destructive to Roma’s backline, while the Partenopei received stellar turns from Kalidou Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam as well.
However, as is so often the case in this sport, no matter who dominates the stat sheets, the result often turns on individual errors, and in this instance, Roma played the fool.
Dries Mertens: 26th Minute
GOAL Mertens!! Roma 0-1 Napoli pic.twitter.com/AIk699NTGL— Serie A English (@SerieA_English) March 4, 2017
After failing to clear the ball from midfield, Napoli pounced on Roma’s error, winning possession and pinging the ball around midfield before making their attacking move. You’ll notice how Napoli toys with Roma’s defense within, what, maybe a 15-yard area, before making a killer final pass. Notice how Fazio over commits when Hamsik takes the ball—who, incidentally, was completely alone—thereby giving Mertens the space to slip behind him. Not the most egregious error we’ve ever seen, but certainly a lapse in judgement from Fazio, who, with no help behind him, shouldn’t have really jumped that pass in the first place.
Roma would manage to mind the gap for the remaining twenty minutes of the first half, but the errors wouldn’t end there, as Mertens would strike again early in the second half.
Dries Mertens: 50th Minute
GOAL Mertens!! Roma 0-2 Napoli pic.twitter.com/gKVrPjYf6Q— Serie A English (@SerieA_English) March 4, 2017
Napoli would once again make hay out of a Roma error. Following some lackadaisical passing from Fazio, Roma would forfeit the ball in midfield, where Napoli was more than willing to capitalize on the capital club’s mistake, catching the Giallorossi stretched thin and overloaded on the right side, giving Lorenzo Insigne acres of space on the left, where he seemingly had all day to drive it towards the box before finding Mertens on the far post, who by that point had completely slipped past Fazio. This wasn’t an error by design, they simply didn’t clear the ball, gifting Napoli a counter attack.
After that, things got a bit interesting...
Little bit of chaos!! #RomaNapoli pic.twitter.com/WWrj58qNbU— Serie A English (@SerieA_English) March 4, 2017
At this point in the match, Roma hadn’t even come close to sniffing Reina’s post, but here they were, completely drawing him off the line thanks to a lovely ball from Nainggolan. However, Salah simply couldn’t get to it quick enough to poke it past Reina, so he had no choice but to play it back to Peres. Unfortunately, the pass was rushed, leaving Bruno with no clear shot at it. Peres then wheeled it back towards the edge of the 18 before flinging in a desperate shot, which was blocked and fell right to Salah, who, once again, simply missed it by a split second, sending it skying over the post. A matter of a few milliseconds prevented Roma from scoring a goal. Thems the breaks sometimes.
The chaos didn’t end there, however, as the waning moments of this match saw Roma pull one back and nearly level it several times in stoppage time. The Giallorossi would grab a goal minutes before final whistle, thanks to their resurgent Dutchman.
Kevin Strootman: 89th Minute
Strootman's goal #RomaNapoli pic.twitter.com/wmg53psx1P— Serie A English (@SerieA_English) March 4, 2017
This was a near textbook goal as Diego Perotti drove the ball to be byline, pulling three defenders with him (to varying degrees), giving Strootman just enough space at the edge of the 18. From there, Dutch Jesuus delivered, slotting the ball home in the far post. Well earned and well deserved goal.
From there, things got, shall we say, quintessentially Roman, with more action and more clear cut chances on goal in 90 seconds than they mustered in the previous 90 minutes, including a miracle save from Reina and a clanged woodwork from Salah.
Unreal from Reina in stoppage time #RomaNapoli pic.twitter.com/QRc0dRGla6— Serie A English (@SerieA_English) March 4, 2017
I mean, what can we say? When a deflected shot is met with a literal finger tip save, it simply isn’t your day. That stupid save may end up costing Roma tens of millions of dollars, or what we might as well call, a Vermaelen tax.
But, before you touch the third rail, calm your tits; things aren’t that bad. Thanks to Napoli’s 2-0 loss last week to Atalanta, Roma still maintain—slim though it may be— a two point lead over third place Napoli, and their schedule, at least domestically, calms down a bit, where the only real looming threat is a home tilt against the aforementioned Atalantans in mid-April.
Should that buoy your spirits? Of course not, with mega matches against Lyon in the interim, Roma has to figure this out. What was once a dynamic and unstoppable force has, in successive matches, been effectively bottled by Roma’s opponents. By stacking the middle of the defense, Lazio and Napoli have been able to remove Edin Dzeko from the equation, forcing Roma’s attack to dance on the periphery, which has, quite predictably, frustrated Spalletti’s tired men.
While Reina and the woodwork denied Roma a chance to level this match, the fact of the matter is that Napoli should have had at least three or four goals, so there’s no use in crying over spilled milk; it is what it is, Roma was outclassed today. Their forwards were blunted by Napoli’s tactics, while the midfield trio looks absolutely gassed.
Somehow, someway, they have to turn this around. Capture the spirit of the final five minutes of this match and unleash from the word go. A two point lead over Napoli is far from safe, and any measure of complacency will doom Roma’s Champions League hopes next season, which will in turn doom their chances of hanging onto their core.
Sort it out, Luciano. The future of Roma may depend on it.