With five wins in a row and eight in their last ten, Roma entered today's match against Napoli as arguably the hottest team in the league, outside of first place AC Milan. What's more, the Giallorossi were lighting up the scoreboard during this winning streak, scoring two or more goals in eight of those ten fixtures. And with the league-wide results falling in their favor earlier in the weekend, Paulo Fonseca's crew had a golden opportunity this evening at the San Paolo: a win would give them sole possession of second place and send a message to the rest of the league—Roma means business.
And in the early phases of this match, it looked like the Giallorossi would deliver on that promise, taking the match to the host in the first 10 minutes. With Leonardo Spinazzola up to his usual tricks on the left and Pedro, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Rick Karsdorp giving Fonseca's attack some much needed balance on the right, it seemed like Roma were intent on putting this game away early.
But that early momentum would quickly be erased by Napoli, who ran off a solid 30 minute stretch of absolute dominance in the first half. With the attack humming thanks to the tidy work of Piotr Zielinksi, Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, and Mario Rui, Napoli held 63% of the possession in the first half and had 130 more passes than Roma, denying Roma time and space to mount any effective counter attack. More often than not, a Roma possession resulted in short passes around their own area to clear the danger and then long, speculative balls from midfield.
They were overwhelmed by Napoli's pressing and it took a monumental effort to simply clear the ball out of their area, and then, almost as if they were simply trying to save face, they'd hoof the ball up the pitch in a desperate effort to mimic a genuine attack. We haven't seen Roma this impatient, this passive and this confused since they were trounced by Sevilla in the knockout stages of last summer's Europa League.
In many ways, this match had the feel of an August tune-up for Napoli, who were toying with Roma like they were a Serie B club happy to be on TV; Gennaro Gattuso's side was quick, precise, and aggressive in all phases of the game, limiting Roma to three attempts, none of which were on target, and not conceding a single corner in the first half.
Still, despite being pinned back so consistently and so thoroughly through the first half hour, Roma were able to avert disaster several times thanks to some key headed clearances, but their luck would soon run out.
Lorenzo Insigne: 31st Minute (Napoli 1, Roma 0)
For Maradona— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 29, 2020
Lorenzo Insigne scores this beautiful free kick and has a special celebration. pic.twitter.com/g7RQ59U2uX
While you always want to credit the outfield player for the skill required to bend a free-kick directly into the goal, Antonio Mirante's positioning here was questionable, to say the least—the free kick was awarded at the very left edge of the area, so I'm not sure why he was so concerned about the far post. With Mirante set up to the right side of the goal (his left), Insigne simply took what the defense made available and stuck the ball just inside the near post.
This was perhaps the longest and most arduous half of football we've endured this season, and the ensuing 15 minutes granted Roma fans no reprieve, as Napoli continued to control possession and dictate terms to Roma.
Injuries would force Fonseca into his second change of the match, removing Jordan Veretout in favor of Gonzalo Villar after making a similar change in defense midway through the first half when Juan Jesus replaced Gianluca Mancini.
Roma showed a bit more life in the first 15 minutes of the second half, seeing more of the ball and actually earning their first corner of the match, but that good will didn't amount to any clear cut chances and one got the feeling that it would take a late miracle goal to simply level this match.
But Napoli would put this game beyond all doubt after the hour mark, teasing Roma deep in their own area before unleashing an unfettered, two-touch counter attack, capping it off with a beautiful goal from Fabian Ruiz.
Fabian Ruiz: 64th Minute (Napoli 2, Roma 0)
After toying with Roma and recycling possession deep in their defensive area, here we see Napoli advancing up nearly the entire pitch in a two pass sequence (after the great flick), catching Roma flat footed, poorly spaced and/or out of position to double their lead. Insigne was able to carry the ball up nearly two-thirds of the pitch by himself and cut into his right without even encountering a Roma defender—notice Gonzalo Villar lightly jogging and not even attempting a tackle.
From there, he played a simple ball to Ruiz, who was greeted by a flat-footed Juan Jesus before he went five-hole on Jesus and beat Mirante at the far right post. Mirante could have read the play better, but this was a disgusting effort from Roma from start to finish.
Fonseca would make two attacking changes late in this match, bringing on Carles Pérez and Borja Mayoral for Edin Dzeko and Lorenzo Pellegrini, respectively. And while Pérez was able to fire off a shot almost immediately after coming on, it was easily dealt with by Napoli's defense, thwarting Roma's best effort from the run of play this evening.
Despite their best efforts to surmount a credible ending to this match, Roma's lax defending and questionable keeping reared their ugly heads in the 81st minute when Dries Mertens seized upon a meaty rebound from a Mirante save to push the score to 3-0.
Napoli would add another thanks to a brilliant individual effort from Roman-born (and Roma player for, like, 12 hours) Matteo Politano, who finished off a beautiful run by deking Mirante out of his boots, tapping home a glorious goal to cement Roma's embarrassment this evening.
And that was all she wrote. Roma were simply outclassed tonight; there's no way around that.
Well, we started the evening dreaming of sole possession of second place and a manageable three-point gap behind AC Milan—a side Roma played to a 3-3 draw last month—only to end it in sixth place, even on 17 points with Juventus and Napoli.
Regardless of who you pin this defeat on, there's no debating it, Roma squandered an incredible opportunity here. Not only could they have secured second place but a win today in Napoli would have been a huge statement from a Paulo Fonseca side that has struggled mightily against the likes of Napoli, Juventus, Inter and Atalanta, among others.
Sure, there were some extenuating circumstances—injuries to the defense, players like Dzeko and Pellegrini just getting back in shape after COVID-19 cases—but that doesn't excuse their complete no-show tonight.
From possession percentage, to shots on goal, to dribbles, to corners taken, Napoli controlled virtually every aspect of this match, looking like the more credible threat to Milan than Roma; the club that entered this match riding a five-game winning streak.
If you find yourself at a loss for words, you're not alone; this time felt different. Roma were in fine form entering this one, beating any and all comers with ease, so at the very least we should have expected a gutty draw rather than a 4-0 drubbing.
Now, Paulo Fonseca is charged with arguably the toughest challenge of his Roma tenure; putting this clunker behind him and taking it to Sassuolo next week to reassert themselves as serious contenders for a top four place.
It won't be easy, but the extent to which Fonseca can put this defeat behind him and keep Roma's spirits up will go a long way towards cementing his status as the man to put Roma over the top.
Roma face BSC Young Boys on Thursday in Rome before running it back in the league against Sassuolo next Sunday.