After Roma’s total embarrassment in the Europa Conference League on Thursday, there’s little doubt that the fresh-car smell that came with the start of the José Mourinho Era is gone. It would be a mistake to suggest that Roma’s back at square one after the 6-1 drubbing; Mourinho did practically put out his bench mid-week, and while it’s massively discouraging that that bench couldn’t even manage to put away a Norwegian side, it would take a particularly mercurial Romanista to spread doom and gloom after only one truly poor match. Remember, as recently as a week and a half ago we were excitedly talking about just how strong and versatile certain elements of this side were. That hasn’t gone away, and hopefully, this poor form will be viewed as just a blip once it’s truly in the rearview mirror.
Roma vs. Napoli: October 24th. 18:00 CET/12:00 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.
Regardless of whether or not the Bodø match was a fluke or a bad omen of things to come, it does mean that the Giallorossi’s perfect record in the ECL has gone down the drain. All that’s left for Mourinho’s men to do is pick up the pieces and turn things around as quickly as possible. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately, considering how poorly Roma did against Bodø) Roma’s next opponent has looked like one of the most intimidating sides in Europe to start the season; if you thought the Derby Del Sole was an exciting match before, the addition of a perfect record for I Partenopei (under Luciano Spalletti, no less) means that this battle of Southern giants has even more pizzazz than usual.
What To Watch For
Could A Weakened Napoli Defense Give Roma An Advantage?
This almost seems like a given considering how perfectly Napoli has started the season, but Gli Azzurri has put forward quite a formidable defense over the first two months of league play. Kalidou Koulibaly and Amir Rrahmani’s play at center-back has been nothing short of outstanding, with each of them garnering an average WhoScored rating of 7.30 and 7.29, respectively. Considering that Napoli has only been allowing 8.9 shots per game in Serie A, those ratings are more than deserved, yet there is a chance cracks might start showing in their defense soon.
That reason is the recent loss of Kostas Manolas, Ex-Greek God of Rome and current Third Center-back of Naples. Manolas went down with a muscle injury during Napoli’s recent Europa League match against Legia Warsaw, and he will certainly be out of tomorrow’s clash. While that loss is certainly not as concerning for Luciano Spalletti as a loss of Koulibaly or Rrahmani would be, it does leave the former Roma boss with fewer quality defensive options off the bench.
If Tammy Abraham, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Nicoló Zaniolo are able to run Koulibaly and Rrahmani ragged in the first half, Spalletti’s only real option off the bench would be, you guessed it, Juan Jesus. That’s not a fate I would wish on my worst enemy, but if the volatility and speed of Roma’s attack is able to make mincemeat of a tiring Napoli defense, the Giallorossi may be able to force Spalletti’s hand, get Jesus on the field, and get the three points at the Olimpico.
Who Contains Victor Osimhen?
Speaking of fearsome attacking players, Victor Osimhen has quickly become one of the most intriguing attackers plying his wares in Serie A today. The 22-year-old Nigerian international has had nearly as bright of a star turn as Lorenzo Pellegrini to start the season, scoring five goals in seven appearances as the leader of Luciano Spalletti’s new-look Napoli. We all know how Spalletti is able to squeeze every last drop of quality out of the right kinds of attacking players; who can forget the Radja Nainggolan Experience, let alone his use of Francesco Totti as a false nine? While that certainly makes for entertaining football (until Spalletti burns bridges, that is), Osimhen’s ability and form pose a problem for José Mourinho: who should he use to contain the Nigerian?
Roger Ibañez is the player who immediately jumps to mind; compared to Mancini’s style of play, Ibañez is typically more suited for man-marking the star player, just as Kostas Manolas and Mehdi Benatia were before him (among others). Yet one of the fascinating things about Osimhen’s fantastic play to start the season is that he isn’t being fed balls by one particular player consistently; his five league goals have been assisted by four different players. That means that no matter how much good work the center-backs put in against Osimhen, it will take strong defensive play from Roma’s fullbacks and midfielders to truly shut down Napoli’s potent offense.
Am I super confident that will happen? Not in the slightest; the defensive capabilities of Rick Karsdorp, Matias Viña, and Bryan Cristante aren’t the most consistent in the world, to say the least. That makes me think that Roma will have to hope that they can provide even more offensive firepower than their Napoletani brethren. Who might be up to that task?
Will Zaniolo Be Ready?
For my money, it’s got to be Nicoló Zaniolo. Sure, he’s coming off a short injury layoff after a dirty play that occurred in the Roma-Juventus game; sure, he hasn’t found the net in league play so far to start the season. Nevertheless, Zaniolo has never been afraid of Napoli before, and it would certainly be a big boost to the club and himself if now was the moment when the goals started coming in for the Italian international. Of course, for that to happen, Zaniolo has to play, but all signs point towards a return to the field for Nicoló this weekend, so I’m optimistic.
If you had told me coming into the season that Roma would be fourth in the league despite not having any goals from their most promising player, I would have correctly assumed that both Lorenzo Pellegrini and Tammy Abraham were leveling up into superstars themselves. Bodø loss aside, the Giallorossi have had a good season so far; the reason I’m optimistic that the club can get even higher than fourth is in part because I know that some players haven’t found their best form yet.
This match against Napoli will likely be a tight one, despite I Partenopei’s perfect form to start the season. If the Giallorossi are able to walk away with a win, particularly on the back of Zaniolo, it will indicate an ability to bounce back from embarrassment that other Roman squads simply didn’t have. That, more than trophies, is what I’m hoping for this season; I hope you are too.