With a ten-point lead at the top of the table and nearly his entire A-team at his disposal, Napoli manager Luciano Spaletti had every reason to smile as his club welcomed Roma to the Stadio Diego Maradona for this evening's round 20 tilt. The odds were already heavily stacked in Napoli's favor, but the fates continued to smile on Roma's southern foes as the Giallorossi entered this fixture consumed by their latest melodrama: Nicolo Zaniolo's not-so-shocking transfer request.
Zaniolo may finally be healthy, but the goals and good spirits we all anticipated at the start of the season never materialized. While Zaniolo has been a mainstay for José Mourinho this season, with only two goals in all competitions, The Kid hasn't exactly feasted on opposing defenses this season.
And his latest controversy, a late-January transfer request, threatened to derail the momentum Roma was cobbling together in 2023. With Zaniolo frozen from the squad, Mourinho slotted club captain Lorenzo Pellegrini behind the Paulo Dybala-Tammy Abraham tandem up top.
With the crowd at the Maradona welcoming the Giallorossi to town with a maelstrom of cheers and whistles, the stage was set for an epic match. But we'd expect no less in the Derby del Sole.
However, with both clubs taking a gentler approach, there wasn't much to write home about in the early stages of tonight's match, but that changed in the 5th minute when Khvicha Kvaratskhelia nearly beat Rui Patricio at the near left post with a swerving effort. Roma was lucky to escape that shot, and the ensuing corner, without conceding a goal.
The Giallorossi's first "break" saw Napoli defender Kim Min-Jae and keeper Alex Meret nearly concede an own goal as Min-Jae's headed clearance looped back towards the goal, nearly chipping Meret in the process. The ball skirted past the left post, sparing the hosts a disastrous unforced error.
With the match creeping past the quarter-hour mark, Roma's low block defense seemed to stifle Napoli's attack, to the extent any club in the league can manage that feat, but Mourinho's men were compact, organized, and chasing every loose ball.
But Napoli would quickly render that moot when Victor Osihmen practically ripped a hole in the back of the net, blasting the ball past a hapless Rui Patricio.
Victor Osimhen: 17th Minute (Napoli 1, Roma 0)
VICTOR OSIMHEN TAKE A BOW— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 29, 2023
14 league goals and counting. pic.twitter.com/yaNbGEvQWR
Not much we can do other than tip our hats here. This was a world-class effort from the Nigerian striker, who not only finished it with aplomb but did remarkably well to settle the ball in the first place with his chest before taking a touch and beating Patricio from a tight angle—and all while he was drifting away from the goal. (The less said about Roma's defending there, the better).
Roma managed to keep their wits about them after conceding that golazo, but through the 30-minute mark, Mourinho's men weren't exactly making life difficult for Napoli, managing only one shot on goal through the first half an hour. A trend that continued until the 38th minute when Paulo Dybala lashed a rebounded effort toward Meret, who watched calmly as the ball sailed wide of the mark.
Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia made some waves late in the half, but Roma managed to stem the tide before the halftime whistle blew, limping into the locker room down 1-0 but not completely without hope.
With his club down a goal to an absolute juggernaut, Mourinho added to his attacking options to start the new half, bringing Stephan El Shaarawy into the fray in place of Leonardo Spinazzola. Their approach, sitting back and waiting to pounce on the counter-attack, was unlikely to change, but SES is in fine form, so it was really the most sensible move Mourinho could have made.
They didn't necessarily tilt the pitch in their favor, but Roma enjoyed their best spell of possession to start the new half, calmly circulating the ball through the midfield and down the wings in the opening moments of the second half. The Giallorossi had a golden chance in the 50th minute when El Shaarawy inexplicably passed on an open header at the far left post, preferring instead to center the ball into the middle of the six-yard box rather than directly testing Meret.
Napoli nearly put the game away in the 55th minute when Kvaratskhelia took an uncharacteristically poor touch in the box, giving Gianluca Mancini just enough time to sweep away the danger. But make no mistake, this was a sure goal for Napoli—Roma was incredibly lucky.
Roma punched back when Nicola Zalewski fired wide from the right edge of the area, but the young left-back, who was playing on the opposite flank today, couldn't convert on Tammy Abraham's would-be assist. Zalewski would tee another shot up moments later, missing wide once again.
Roma's next chance would come just after the hour mark when Paulo Dybala floated a deep free-kick towards Cristante. With enough time and space to make his mark, Cristante whipped a header towards the post, only to be denied by Meret. Roma would hit straight back when Chris Smalling found Roger Ibañez in the middle of the area, only to see the Brazilian defender's shot die on the pitch.
The two sides would trade barbs over the next 10 minutes, but with time running short, Mourinho went to the bench again, swapping out Tammy Abraham, who left the pitch clutching his hamstring, for Andrea Belotti.
It wasn't Il Gallo, but Roma finally found paydirt deep in the second half.
Stephan El Shaarawy: 75th Minute (Napoli 1, Roma 0)
Stephan El Shaarawy comes off the bench and puts a dent in Napoli's plans. pic.twitter.com/C7UwWUGxWj— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) January 29, 2023
Nothing extraordinary here, just another classic El Shaarawy goal: unexpected, unassuming, but wholly original. After sneaking past Chucky Lozano at the far post, SES managed to redirect Zalewski's cross with his outstep, beating Miret to the top corner, leveling the match at one apiece and giving Roma a lifeline before the match headed into the final 15 minutes.
Roma's next substitution would see midfielder Edoardo Bove enter the match in place of Lorenzo Pellegrini, giving the Giallorossi some added grit and enthusiasm as they chased the victory down the stretch. Mourinho would also add Benjamin Tahirovic to the mix in place of Nemanja Matic.
As great as it would have been to see Roma well and truly hunt for the victory here, Mourinho was content to compact his defense and hope that his squad could steal a win via a setpiece or a well-orchestrated counter-attack.
Unfortunately, Roma's last-gasp hopes were dashed when Giovanni Simeone scored a match-winner in the 86th minute, shaking free from Chris Smalling as he made the turn, shaking free form the English defender to carve out space and beat Patrico low and away.
Mourinho would respond by swapping out Bryan Cristante for Cristian Volpato, but with only minutes remaining, it was too little too late. Roma put up a good fight and nearly stole a critical point on the road, but the Napoli attack was simply too talented to stifle for 90 minutes.
Napoli has a 13-point lead at the top of the table for a reason. This is a near-perfectly constructed squad, particularly in attack, where they survived Roma's last-ditch efforts thanks to the luxury of having a player like Simeone on the bench. And on a night when they got next to nothing from Kvaratskhelia, they needed every bit of that depth.
A win today, though unlikely, would have vaulted Roma into the top four, while a draw would have kept the Giallorossi level on points with fifth-place Milan. However, as it stands now, Mourinho's men are safe in sixth place, only one point behind fourth-place Atlanta.
Still in good shape, but it’s hard not to be disappointed when the point was right there.
Roma returns to the Coppa Italia when they host Cremonese on Wednesday.