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Last Minute Mertens Goal Robs Roma of Victory

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Roma were lucky to hold Napoli off as long as they did, but a last minute goal from Mertens secured a draw for Napoli.

SSC Napoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

For a club presumably nervous to carry over their Champions League form to their domestic campaign, tonight’s match against Napoli could not have started any worse. No, we’re not talking about any sort of tactical miscalculation or misplaced pass, but the match itself was delayed for more than five minutes due to some technical issues with VAR, which had neither video nor audio working; apparently Serie A purchases their VAR equipment at Radioshack. I mean, they have good deals, but can you really trust that place?

Once the match got underway, it was about what you expected: diminutive Napoli players running circles around Roma’s larger and somewhat stoic backline. Through the first ten minutes or so, it looked like a mere formality that Napoli would crack this match open before even breaking a sweat, but it was Roma’s birthday boy that drew first blood.

Stephan El Shaarawy: 14th Minute (Napoli 0, Roma 1)

In the run of play, this one looked like it might test the referee’s malfunctioning VAR, but as you can see, El Shaarawy pinged this one off the far post, with the ball clearly crossing the goal line before being dug out in desperation by the Napoli defense, who then inadvertently booted it at David Ospina, which provoked a sensible chuckle from me.

While that goal may have sunk lesser sides, Napoli really ratched up the pressure on Roma’s backline, with Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik and Jose Callejon each testing Robin Olsen multiple times through the middle portions of the first half. Olsen, much to his credit, was aggressive and intuitive, reading the angles and making well timed breaks towards the ball; he’s really been a tremendous surprise this season and really seems to be settling into life in Italy. To call that a massive relief would be an understatement.

Despite Olsen’s heroics, Napoli continued to dominate the run of play, pressing Roma the minute they had the ball and harrying them into quick turnovers. Still, despite the lopsided play, Roma had a golden opportunity just past the half hour mark when Cengiz Ünder slipped a through ball to Edin Dzeko, giving him just enough room to overlap/run onto it from Ünder’s right hand side, but Dzeko just couldn’t get enough on it and was denied space by Ospina. Not Dzeko’s most egregious miss, but the announcers were correct to question why he didn’t loft it over the diving Ospina, rather than attempting to dribble around him.

By and large, the final ten minutes of the first half played on without major issues* Insigne very nearly beat Olsen from 20+ yards out, but his shot ultimately sailed wide of the right post. However, moments later Daniele De Rossi waived urgently to the bench for a sub, presumably due to his, you know, broken foot. Not exactly how he envisioned his 450th Serie A appearance going—lasting all of 43 minutes—and Bryan Cristante playing in such an important match wasn’t something any Roma fan envisioned.

Second Half

Well, Napoli picked up literally where they left off, testing Olsen, like, twenty seconds into the first half, but the lanky Swede was up to the task, which would prove to be a theme for much of the second half.

De Rossi or no De Rossi, I’m not sure anyone in yellow would have been able to slow Napoli down this evening, and really the only thing stopping Napoli from scoring was the absence of Milik, who was subbed off for Dries Mertens in the 56th minute. I’m not sure exactly what Ancelotti was thinking with that swap—perhaps he was trying to further exploit Roma in the wide areas—but there were multiple lofted crosses played Mertens way that he was simply too short to latch onto. Perhaps Carletto was dealing from the bottom of the deck to help his hometown team?

The bulk of the second half would carry on like the first: Napoli attacking Roma from every angle, only to be denied by Olsen’s outstretched arms, the well placed head of Kostas Manolas, or, in some cases, just poor execution. Napoli was playing like Roma versus your standard, bottom of the table team; creating chances at will only to come up empty.

However, as we mentioned in our match preview, Napoli’s high octane attack isn’t exactly buoyed by a stellar defense; Roma were able to (albeit infrequently) threaten Ospina, with El Shaarawy looking particularly dangerous in spurts, while Edin Dzeko wasted two semi-chances, which, as you probably guessed, they’d live to regret.

Things would get even more anxious when Manolas, Roma’s best defender by a country mile, was subbed off for Federico Fazio, Roma’s slowest defender by a country mile, late in the second half. With Manolas suffering from what appeared to be a thigh/hamstring issue, EDF really had no choice, but Fazio against a Napoli side with nothing to lose for 15 minutes is terror inducing. To his credit, however, Fazio did make several key blocks or headers during his quarter-hour on the pitch and was part of an offside trap that denied a would be Mertens equalizer.

Napoli would BRING IT for the final ten minutes or so of this match, pushing everyone high up the pitch in a desperate effort to level this match in front of a palpably tense San Paolo crowd. And for several minutes it looked like Roma’s bend, bend, bend, bend but don’t break approach to defense would work...until it didn’t.

After a few successful offside traps, Roma were done in by a bit of lazy defending. With Napoli working the ball down the right flank, Dries Mertens made a run towards the far post, which was tracked well enough by Juan Jesus. However, as the ball kept moving, so did Juan’s eyes, firmly planted on the ball, so much so that he didn’t notice that Mertens had halted his run and stepped back away from the end line, where he was then in prime position to score a virtually unfettered 90th minute equalizer. Aleksandar Kolarov was equally culpable in this late hiccup as well, with his feet firmly planted and jaw slacked as Mertens rose up to scissor kick it home.

Not a fitting end to the match, but Napoli were banging on the door from the word go, so Roma’s luck was bound to run out; it’s just unfortunate that this goal was probably avoidable.

In the end, taking a point away to Napoli isn’t exactly bad news, but Roma had this match sewn up, albeit with extremely shoddy and loose stitching, for 93:59 of this 94-minute match.

Conclusions

What can we say? This is a bitter pill to swallow no matter how we dress it up. Roma’s defense held firm enough at the back, though Napoli did pretty much whatever they wanted when and where they wanted, but capitulated at the absolute worst moment; right at the death of regular time.

It will be interesting to see how EDF explains this one away. Sure, they blew it with one moment of lapsed concentration, but it’s not as if they were earning high marks throughout this match. Quite frankly, Napoli should have won this thing walking away; they were that dominant. Even if Roma had hung onto this match, I’m not sure there were any tactical masterstrokes or bright spots to build upon. Sure, three points would have been huge and ultimately all that mattered, but the manner in which they played gave no indication that they’re headed in the right direction; they were as spotty and inconsistent as they’ve been all season long.

With the lone point taken tonight, Roma are part of a five team logjam on 15 points, though when everything is weighed and measured, they check in at eight place.

Things don’t get any easier once the calendar turns to November either, as Roma have successive away matches against Fiorentina and CSKA Moscow before welcoming Sampdoria to the Olimpico on the 11th of November.

Until then...