The Derby Del Sole doesn’t match the Derby Della Capitale in terms of sheer energy surrounding the match, but it is often the more critical match for Roma’s seasonal aspirations. During the peak years of Jim Pallotta’s ownership era in the 2010s, Roma was far ahead of Lazio in the Serie A pecking order, and Romanisti became used to the idea of winning the Derby Della Capitale. Not so with the Derby Del Sole, as the trio of Juventus, Napoli, and Roma were often jockeying for the top spot in the league, and in the years where Juve managed to pull away quickly and efficiently, Napoli and Roma would still often duke it out for second.
These days, the Derby Della Capitale has become more critical along with Lazio’s rise back into (relative) relevance, but even still, tomorrow’s match against Napoli carries far more import for the Giallorossi’s aspirations for the rest of the season. Former Roma boss Luciano Spalletti has had an incredible start to the season with I Partenopei, leading them to first place in the league and a perfect record.
A win tomorrow for Mourinho’s men would vault the Giallorossi even higher in the race for the Scudetto while deflating Napoli at a critical moment in their season. Even a draw would take some of the shine off their impressive squad and match form. Making any positive result happen will certainly depend on the Giallorossi turning expected goals into actual goals from the word go, along with continued defensive excellence on the parts of Chris Smalling, Gianluca Mancini, and Roger Ibañez.
What To Watch For
Will Mourinho’s Defense of Nicolò Zaniolo Pay Off?
Speaking of expected versus actual goals, Nicolò Zaniolo has recently been a master of creating excellent chances while somehow still having zero league goals through the first ten match days. As a major fan of his game, it’s been frustrating to see what appears to be nine out of ten pieces falling into place for The Kid, while that tenth piece is still tantalizingly just out of reach.
Throughout Zaniolo’s return to form post-ACL tears, he’s had the consistent support of José Mourinho, and despite his lack of goals scored so far this season, Mourinho’s support has not wavered. He even took some time in today’s pre-match presser to explicitly support Zaniolo:
“He is in a moment of his career where he has to grow, improve, understand the game better. In this sense, when you are more offensive, you are usually more instinctive.”
“When you are a midfield player you must also be a player who thinks, understand that you don’t have to risk so much all the time. He is in a phase of continuous growth and learning.”
“In the match against Sampdoria I think he showed us that he’s matured from an emotional point of view. He started from the bench and he had one single thing in his mind: he wanted his team to win, he wanted to help the team win the game at all costs. I really liked that about him.”
“His suspension in Europa League is a joke. Three days for a red card is a joke and something I can’t wrap my head around.”
“This kid gets the worst stuff thrown at him all the time and so I must defend him. I’m not happy because I won’t have him at my disposal for two crucial Europa League matches. But I feel for him because this is not fair.”
Mourinho knows where his bread is buttered, and from day one, it’s been clear that he views Zaniolo as a key part of Roma’s present and future. With reports suggesting that Zaniolo is nearing a renewal with the Giallorossi that will make him a top earner just behind Tammy Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini, it’s clear that the club views The Kid in this way too.
The open question is when that faith pays off for Mourinho and the club. It could undoubtedly be the start of something special if Zaniolo can score in tomorrow’s derby; Totti knows they need someone on offense to start clicking.
Will Defense or Offense Prevail?
Roma’s offensive woes aren’t just limited to Nicolò Zaniolo struggling to find the net; everyone from Tammy Abraham to Lorenzo Pellegrini seems to be struggling to consistently score these days, and it’s definitely Roma’s defense that has been enabling them to keep pace with the top of the table through ten match days. It’s completely fair to bring up expected goals versus actual goals in this conversation, but quite frankly, I’m tired of saying, “well, eventually Roma will revert to the mean, and these expected goals will become actual goals” because that’s boring.
Instead, I’m going to frame tomorrow’s match in another way: as the Giallorossi have been able to rely on their defense to keep matches in hand while their offense has stagnated, will that defense be up to the task of containing a deadly Napoli attack?
André-Frank Zambo Anguissa may be out of the lineup tomorrow, but with Victor Osimhen now available to play after an injury layoff, Luciano Spalletti truly has an embarrassment of riches on his hands in the attacking department. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Giacomo Raspadori, Osimhen, Simeone, Politano... if you thought coming into the season that Roma had fantastic forward depth, you were right, but Gli Azzurri’s depth also has form on its side. Luckily, whoever Spalletti puts up front will be contending with one of the best defenses in Europe; Chris Smalling is arguably the best center-back in Europe today, while Roger Ibañez and Gianluca Mancini have worked hard on sanding away their flaws to become more complete defenders since last season.
For Roma to have a chance at a positive result tomorrow, those three will have to be on their best behavior, both in terms of avoiding cards and containing Napoli's offensive firepower in its back pocket. A clean sheet from the Giallorossi defense will mean that even one goal from Pellegrini or Abraham, or Zaniolo will result in a win, and given Roma’s poor form up front, one goal may be all we can hope for tomorrow.