Heading into today's Derby del Sole against Napoli, the main talking points centered around fitness and rest. With Roma fresh off another Serie A/Europa League double dip this week, not to mention dealing with injuries to central figures like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jordan Veretout, many fans and pundits were concerned that Roma wouldn't have the legs to run with Napoli, who were granted a bit of a reprieve from the schedule makers when their already postponed fixture against Juventus was rescheduled from midweek, much to Roma's chagrins and protestations.
But through the first 10 to 15 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico, none of that seemed to matter as both sides struggled to really get in the flow of the game. Roma somewhat surprisingly came out with a rather passive approach, letting Napoli work the ball through the midfield with very little opposition. Once Gattuso's men reached the final third, more often than not they tried to find Dries Mertens or Lorenzo Insigne diving through cracks in Roma's backline. They may have looked like saplings amongst redwoods, but those little runs seemed like they'd pay dividends sooner rather than later.
The Giallorossi were hanging tough, though. No matter how much space Insigne or Mertens found in the area, Roma seemingly always got a foot to the ball to avert disaster. But, unfortunately, they just couldn't seem to counter Napoli's attacking moves and had to wait until the 16th minute to get a clean look at goal—a turn and fire from Edin Dzeko that was simply too slow and too direct to fool David Ospina in goal.
Things got so dire for Roma in attack that their “best” (or certainly most exciting) attacking move of the first half came in the 21st minute when Roger Ibañez somehow orchestrated a coast-to-coast run on his own, ultimately falling in the box and getting his hand stamped on my the massive Nikola Maksimovic.
Despite ceding possession to Napoli, Roma, at the very least, seemed capable of keeping the match level, particularly since Napoli weren't making effective use of the ball through the first 20 minutes or so. But, as is so often the case, one small mental error can break open the floodgates.
In the 27th minute, Roger Ibañez committed a foul at the edge of the box, giving Napoli a free-kick in prime goal-scoring territory. And, well, you know where this is going...
Dries Mertens: 27th Minute (Roma 0, Napoli 1)
GOOOL DE DRIES MERTENS ⚽️— Garra Sports (@GarraSportsMx) March 21, 2021
Roma 0 1 Napoli #SerieA
Pretty standard stuff here. With Roma's wall shaded slightly to the left of the pitch, Mertens simply went the other way, burying the ball past the outstretched hand of Pau Lopez, who read the flight of the ball correctly but just wasn't quick enough to catch up to it.
On the balance of things, Napoli probably deserved a goal simply because they looked like the more eager side, but to that point, they hadn't really created any genuine chances in the run of play. Nevertheless, that well-struck free-kick from Napoli caused more than a few Roma heads to hang.
But it was about to get worse. So much worse.
Dries Mertens: 34th Minute (Napoli 2, Roma 0)
Doblete de Mertens ⚽️⚽️— Garra Sports (@GarraSportsMx) March 21, 2021
Roma 0 2 Napoli #SerieA
Credit where it's due; this was a beautiful play from Napoli, who stretched Roma's defense in both directions. First, Insigne drops a cross to Matteo Politano from roughly 35 yards out, putting it on a plate for the Roma-born winger. From there, Politano does an excellent job to quickly head the ball back in the opposite direction, where he found Mertens wide open for the gimme header. This was just a perfect sequence from Napoli—you couldn't have drawn it up any better.
In the dying moments of the first half, Roma finally decided to press Napoli higher up the pitch and tried (in vain) to get Leonardo Spinazzola and Rick Karsdorp more involved in the attack.
It was too little too late for the first half, but would it be a sign of things to come for Roma in the second half?
In a word, yes. In a more nuanced word, yes-ish. Roma had every reason to be deflated coming out of the locker room to start the new half, but they managed their best chance at goal immediately when Spinazzola found Lorenzo Pellegrini in the middle of the box with a pinpoint cross. Pellegrini rose to meet the ball, had all the time and space in the world, and likely had Ospina beat, but his header went straight at the Napoli keeper.
And believe me when I tell you, that miss was quite foreboding for Roma as they struggled mightily throughout the second half to generate a credible threat to Napoli. Roma's next chance at goal came in the 58th minute when Pedro got loose in the box and fired a shot so far over the bar it may have landed in the Adriatic.
Despite the scoreline and the two early missed chances, Roma looked more sprightly in the opening 10 minutes than they did at any point in the first half. And as the match passed the hour mark, fortune nearly smiled on Roma when Kalidou Koulibaly committed a rare turnover in Napoli's area. Stephan El Shaarawy quickly found Pellegrini at the edge of the box, and while the Roma captain managed a crack at goal and had Ospina beat, the ball struck the right post.
With 30 minutes remaining and Roma's looking equal parts debilitated and desperate, Paulo Fonseca made a triple swap: Carles Pérez for Pedro, Borja Mayoral for Edin Dzeko, and Gonzalo Villar for Amadou Diawara. It was the right move as none of Pedro, Dzeko or Diawara were very effective to that point.
Despite the fresh legs, Roma were still no match for Napoli, who were dominating nearly every facet of the match, particularly through the transition faces and while counter-attacking against Roma's belated pressing.
The Giallorossi managed an unintentional look at goal in the 81st minute when Rick Karsdorp played an awkward cross/shot from the right wing, one that almost caught Ospina by surprise.
Fonseca would make one final change down the stretch, swapping out Pellegrini for Marash Kumbulla, pushing Cristante up into midfield but it had little to no impact on the match.
Things got a bit chippy down the stretch when Gianluca Mancini and Victor Oshimen clashed for the second time after Mancini took a deliberate swipe at the Napoli striker's legs earlier in the half. Mancini and Oshimen came face to face, as did Cristante and Mario Rui, but cooler heads prevailed.
The referee, who may or may not be a sadist, tacked on five additional minutes to this match, but Roma couldn't conjure any late miracles and fell to Napoli for the third straight time, something that hasn't happened since 1976.
Welp, what else needs to be said? Roma's struggles against Italy's top clubs are well documented by this point, but this loss essentially puts Roma's top-four hopes to bed. Roma are now in sixth place, five points behind fourth-place Juventus, who have a match in hand, and only one point ahead of seventh-place Lazio, who also have a match in hand.
With 10 matches remaining and five clubs jockeying between third and sixth place, it's not out of the question that Roma could get hot and qualify for the Champions League via the league route, but three of those clubs (Juve, Napoli, and Lazio) all have a game in hand over Roma, so the odds don't seem in the Giallorossi's favor.
So, it’s basically the Europa League title or bust for Roma at this point.
The international break.