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Can Roma Break Their Hex Against Top Teams When They Travel to Napoli?

Roma have struggled against topsides under Paulo Fonseca, making tomorrow's match a potential turning point.

AS Roma v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dating back to the fall of 1929, the rivalry between Associazione Sportiva Roma and Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli is one of the oldest and most bitter in all of Italian football. With a total of 58 wins, 53 draws and 47 defeats, Roma have actually faired pretty well against their southern neighbors, but I'm not sure they've ever faced a match like tomorrow's trip to the Stadio San Paolo—a name that may soon be a thing of the past.

On Wednesday afternoon, footballing legend Diego Armando Maradona passed away at the age of 60 after suffering a heart attack in his Buenos Aires home. Whether you consider him the greatest player of all-time or not, one thing is absolutely certain: Maradona was and remains a god-like figure to the people of Napoli. So much so that, mere hours after his death, a movement to rename Napoli's grounds in Maradona's honor began to gain traction.

Napoli vs. Roma: November 29th. 20:45 CET/2:45 EST. Stadio San Paolo, Napoli.

While it’s not a perfect analogy, if there is any fanbase that can empathize with and appreciate the cult of Maradona in Napoli, it's Roma fans, who worship Francesco Totti with the same sense of reverence and awe.

Considering all he meant to the club and people of Napoli, this match will have a decidedly different air than your typical Derby del Sole. It's a shame fans won't be allowed in the stands but the league plans on honoring Maradona with a minute of silence before kickoff, black armbands, and a halt in play in the 10th minute.

Given all he meant to the club and city of Napoli, paying proper tribute to Maradona is probably impossible, but once the minutes of silence are over, there is still a match to play, so let's take a quick look at the storylines in this critical six pointer.

Tale of the Tape

Roma & Napoli Comparison

Stat Roma Napoli
Stat Roma Napoli
Points 17 14
xG 22.24 12.76
GCA 31 25
GF 19 16
GA 11 10
SOT % 34 38
Conversion % 15 12

Despite being separated by only three points on the table, Roma's attack has been, at least in theory, more prolific than Napoli's, besting Gattuso's squad by nearly 10 expected goals. The Giallorossi also hold the edge in actual goals, goal creating actions, and total shots but are lagging behind their competition in shooting percentage and conversion rate.

All of which is to say: if Roma were a bit more clinical in front of goal, they might be top of the table and this six pointer would start to look like a David v. Goliath scenario.

But...this is still Napoli we're talking about and Roma haven't exactly dominated this fixture in recent years, with Sunday's hosts taking the honors in two of the past three matches. Roma may be on a roll at the moment, but they haven't faced an opponent of Napoli's quality since late October when they drew Milan.

Paulo Fonseca deserves credit for dominating smaller sides, but Roma's record against the top six hasn't been quite as sterling lately.

With that in mind, let's take a look at...

What to Watch For

AS Roma v Parma Calcio 1913 - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Frying the Big Fish: Roma's Struggles Against the Top Six

Roma have dominated the Beneventos and Parmas of the world lately, but when it comes to their chief competitors for Italy's four Champions League places (Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Lazio, Atalanta and Napoli), the Giallorossi have struggled to replicate the same success they enjoy against smaller sides.

In 45 league matches under Fonseca, Roma has managed a 26-8-11 record (W-D-L), winning 57% of their matches and averaging 1.91 points per game. When you pull out all the fixtures against those big six clubs, Roma's record improves dramatically: 23-2-6 (W-D-L), a 74% winning percentage and an average of 2.29 points per game.

However, against the “Big Six”, those figures drop precipitously: 3-6-5 (W-D-L), a lowly 21.4% of matches won and an average of 1.07 points per game. While we'd expect a bit of regression against larger clubs, scraping out barely more than a point per game against your direct competition for Champions League places is a troubling trend.

But, on the brighter side of things, Roma have never looked this good under Paulo Fonseca and have already taken points off Juventus and Milan this season, and a victory tomorrow over Napoli could the springboard Roma needs to truly cement their status as a serious Champions League contender...and perhaps even as legitimate threats for the S-word.

Credit to CdT member Gollum_ASR for compiling these figures*

How Will Roma Handle Napoli's Big Four?

SSC Napoli v AC MIlan - Serie A Photo by Franco Romano/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Napoli aren't scorching scoreboards like they did under Maurizio Sarri, but they aren't exactly lacking top tier talent either. Napoli's big four—Hirving Lazano, Victor Oshimen, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne—have accounted for 11 goals and 5 assists through the club's first eight matches and will present quite a challenge to Roma's still undermanned defense.

Roma will receive a bit of a reprieve with Oshimen likely to miss this match, but Mertens (4.69), Insigne (3.64) and Lozano (3.31) are each among the league leaders in shot-creating actions per 90 minutes, while Lozano and Mertens are also top three in the league in goal-creating actions. And we haven't even mentioned Matteo Politano, who is second in the league in goal-creating actions and third in shot-creating actions.

Add all that up and Napoli, despite not finding the back of the net as often as they once did, are still a remarkably balanced and hard to defend attacking squad. Through eight matches, 37% of Napoli's attacks come through the left, 26% through the center and 37% down the right. Like we said, balanced.

So, while one can't tell with any certainty where Napoli's attacks will begin, with 68% of their actual shot attempts coming through the middle, and 56% of those occurring in the penalty area at an average of 16.5 yards out, they do know where their bread is buttered. Lozano (63% on target) and Mertens (45% on target) have been particularly dangerous in front of goal, despite underperforming their expected goal totals.

As with all things, stopping this quartet (with Politano taking the place of Oshimen for the sake of this discussion) will be a team effort, but Roma will have to pay special attention to Mertens, who is among the league leaders in a host of attacking categories and has formed a particularly potent pairing with Lozano, setting up three goals for the Mexican international—the top mark in the league.

With Oshimen likely to miss this match, Mertens will likely be deployed as a lone-striker, so Roma won't have to worry as much about Mertens the creator, but the man ostensibly taking his place in the hole (Politano) has been even more effective this season, ranking among league leaders in goal creating and shot creating actions.

Understandably then, limiting Mertens' effective touches (those in the middle of the pitch and/or in the area) is likely the key to victory for Roma tomorrow. Mertens is the straw that stirs the drink, so isolating him removes the prime outlet for Insigne and Politano's playmaking, while also depriving Lozano of his chief supplier of goals.

Playing in Napoli is never easy, but when you consider the emotion of the moment brought on by Maradona's passing and Roma's struggles against bigger clubs, then Sunday's fixture suddenly looks like Roma's most difficult match to date.

But a victory on the road against a tough Napoli side could be a pivotal moment in Roma's race to the top.


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