Roma’s Serie A clash with Napoli could have a huge impact on the title race – and it might just be the game of the decade.
More goals than LaLiga and Ligue 1, a three-way title race and wanton abandon of defensive ideals. This is Serie A, but not as we know it.
This is a season in which bottom-club Pescara went months without a victory, losing two eight-goal encounters, and then hammered Genoa 5-0. We’ve seen Fiorentina net five in 33 minutes and Palermo, by far the lowest scorers in the division, win 4-3 on the road (Genoa, again) thanks to two goals in the dying embers.
Even Juventus have fuelled their latest title bulldozer with a formation change that has seen Massimiliano Allegri play two forwards and Mario Mandzukic on the left wing. “Nobody expected me to actually do it!” Allegri admitted. “I am not much of a theorist, but every now and then I come up with a mad idea and try it on the pitch.”
It might be a season to make the Catenaccio apologists cringe, but if these ‘mad ideas’ really are your thing, then don the straight jacket, head for the padded cell and prepare for Roma versus Napoli.
Boiled down to the basic elements, each side needs to win at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday. Roma losing will give Juve the chance to open up a 10-point gap at the top. Napoli, who have lost three of their last four in all competitions, will be eight adrift of Roma in defeat and would start shooting nervous glances at the teams waiting to pounce on a Champions League place, Atalanta chief among them.
In years gone by, Roma and Napoli may well have weighed attacking tendencies against the risk of defeat and decided that putting the ball in the net just isn’t worth the bother. Only five goals were scored in their last five meetings prior to this season, with the away team failing to net at all in Serie A since May 2013.
The mould was broken at the San Paolo last October. Roma triumphed 3-1 in an engrossing contest, with Edin Dzeko scoring twice.
The Bosnia-Herzegovina striker has reached the top of the Capocannoniere top-scorer standings, level with Gonzalo Higuain and Andrea Belotti on 19 goals, and he has another 10 to his name in cup football. He barely managed a smile in the final months of Rudi Garcia’s time in charge, never mind a goal.
Unleashing his players’ attacking instincts has been a hallmark of Luciano Spalletti’s reign. Dzeko and Mohamed Salah are playing the best football of their careers. Radja Nainggolan has scored more goals (15) in his last 42 league games than he managed in the previous 201.
The story in Naples is similar. Dries Mertens has 20 goals, 11 assists and three hat-tricks in a season in which he has shed frustrating inconsistency to become one of Europe’s most devastating forwards. Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Marek Hamsik have played no small part, either; in fact, losing Higuain to Juve and Arkadiusz Milik to injury has scarcely been felt, so ruthless have Napoli been in the final third. Manolo Gabbiadini, who has hit five in three since joining Southampton, was forced to leave just to get a game.
Nobody has done more to silence the cynics’ view of a boring Serie A than Roma and Napoli. They have scored more goals and had more shots than anyone else, refusing to curb those attacking principles regardless of predicament: Roma, for instance, hit 22 shots in their 2-0 Coppa Italia loss to Lazio on Wednesday and Napoli had more passes, crosses and possession as they went down 3-1 to Juve.
Far from fretting over an unsustainable style, the owners have embraced this approach. James Pallotta claimed he should have sacked Garcia sooner and lauded Spalletti for his “passion”. Napoli’s film-producing owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, never shy when it comes to assessing his appointments in public, said Sarri should be heralded for “putting beauty into football” with a “fun” focus on aesthetics – that was, at least, until he got hacked off when Real Madrid outscored them.
Form and history are on Roma’s side. They have a 100 per cent record at home in the league this term and have been beaten just once in Napoli’s last 14 visits. But as these sides have spent a whole season blasting Serie A tradition to pieces, there’s little point in predictions. Just embrace a madcap meeting that could be the bel paese’s best in years.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: NAPOLI’S DISMAL RECORD
Napoli will need to arrest a dreadful run of results away to Roma if they are to collect the victory they so sorely need. Scoring a goal would be a good way to start.
Here are some of the stats behind their recent meetings. Although they make for poor reading for the visitors, they certainly point to an exciting 90 minutes.
0- AS Roma is the only team in the Serie A against whom Mauricio Sarri is yet to win a game in his managerial career.
10 – Roma have picked up 10 points in their last four Serie A games against Napoli (W3, D1).
4 – Roma have beaten Napoli in their last four home Serie A games, and the Giallorossi have lost only one of the last 14 (W9, D4).
276 – Napoli have not scored away at Roma in the last 276 minutes against them: their last goal there was scored by Edinson Cavani in May 2013.
15 – Roma have won their last four Serie A game (13 goals scored) – at home, they’ve won all of the last 15 home games, their longest run.
9 – Napoli have conceded goals in nine of their last 10 league games, and they’ve conceded eight goals and faced 26 shots on target more than at this stage last season.
117 – Roma and Napoli have scored the most goals this season in Serie A (60 Napoli, 57 Roma) and have fired the most shots on target (187 Napoli, 156 Roma)