A scalding match seems set up to take place this Sunday between Roma and Napoli, as two cultural rivals face off in an already decisive match for qualification in the Champions League spot. With only three points separating the two teams and an insipid 1-1 draw after the first leg, expect flames – and at the same time, hope for ice. The rivalry between these two teams is almost as unhealthy and plagued with racism as that of the Roman or Palermo derbies, and the real duel this week will take place between common sense and the hysteria of the atmosphere. A victory in that field would be more important for Italian football than three points could be to either team. With that being said, let’s take a look at the duels taking place on the pitch.
Leandro Rinaudo vs. Francesco Totti
The spotlight is inevitably going to be on the return of the Giallorossi captain. The man has been out with injury for some time, and while it is hard to imagine his form to be anything more than tepid, his psychological influence on the rest of the team is still massive. The man provides leadership, inventiveness, and – even at his lowest form – a remarkable finish. Rinaudo, who is bound to start in Fabiano Santacroce’s place, will be asked to stop the Roma talisman – an ingrate task, but if there is a right time for it to be attempted, then it is now. Totti will be slow, so Rinaudo will have to exploit speed to quaff him out before the assists and back-heels start flowing.
Paolo Cannavaro vs. Julio Baptista
Even as all eyes will be on Totti, the real threat at that end of the pitch will be posed by teammate Baptista. The Brazilian is exceptionally powerful (more than anyone else is bound to be on that pitch, probably) and on a strong run of form. While the man’s passing leaves something to be desired, his decisiveness does not – three goals in the last two matches speak for themselves. Paolo Cannavaro may have some trouble with ‘the Beast,’ since he possesses neither physical power, nor speed, nor even technique to rival the Brazilian. He has only more experience, and an impressive grit displayed this year. He will have to show plenty of both.
Ezequiel Lavezzi vs. Philippe Mexes
There is no man more dangerous in the Napoli attack than Lavezzi, and the kid is all the more admirable inasmuch as he combines his scorching talent with impressive moral energy. The Argentinean has a fight in him, and it’s the kind to skin your knuckles. Mexes is a skillful and very powerful defender, but he’s been known to suffer fast-paced forwards (Alexandre Pato made him eat so much dust two weeks ago that the man is probably having digestive problems). In fact, Lavezzi already confronted the Frenchman in the first leg, and his serpentine runs were clearly hitting a weak spot. While this in itself is no guarantee of a goal (the rest of the Roman defense, from Alexander Doni to Juan, will have their say), we can expect quite a few hearts in Rome to stop every time the Napoli player approaches the box.
Christian Maggio vs. Simone Perrotta
Maggio was underperforming for Sampdoria and he is currently underperforming for Napoli as well. His runs look impressive when the adversary is a relegation contender (or at least, sometimes – he was evanescent last week against Chievo), but they are not enough against big guns and they are not enough for a team with Napoli’s ambitions. Perrotta won’t necessarily operate on Maggio’s same wing, but his role is essentially that of doing the dirty work all over the pitch, so they are likely to cross each other on more than a couple of occasions. Both will have to limit each other’s effects while providing fuel for the attacks of their own team, but it will be a duel as decisive for the game’s equilibrium as it is going to be dreary and unremarkable to watch. Both players are overrated, and it really is a shame to see them play when both teams have some impressive young blood on their bench – where are Andrea Russotto and Alberto Aquilani?
Luciano Spalletti vs. Stadio San Paolo
Normally the central contest is between the two Coaches. But this time around the adversary’s tactics will play a limited role in the outcome of the game. The San Paolo is a melting pot of a stadium and Roma a psychologically imbalanced team. Last weekend’s victory against Torino was more a matter of luck than skill, and if Roma cannot keep their heads cool under the inevitable pressure (Roma is perhaps the single most detested team by the Neapolitan public, for reasons which are not completely clear) then they will strangle themselves with their own hands. Napoli at home are a force to be reckoned with, much more so than when they play away. Spalletti will need to review his Cicero and polish his oratorical skills if he wants his team not to dissolve in the blue inferno.
Edy Reja vs. Napoli
Reja has trouble of his own. Marek Hamsik’s red card last week represents more than a temporary tactical and technical void to fill against Roma – it is a preoccupying symptom of tension and lack of communication between the Coach and his players. Hamsik has been short-tempered for as long as anyone can remember, so why has Reja taken no steps to redress this? Even more worrying is the melodrama that German Denis offered us when he was taken off against Chievo – yells and insults against his trainer. This is the last thing that any Coach can allow, and if Reja takes no steps to redress this, it will eventually start affecting the performance of the team (it already has – Napoli’s last game was against a relegation contender, and they were still failing to impose their game). On the long term, with an incredibly heated race for the fourth place going on, this can have very serious consequences. On the short term, Reja can only do so much. He knows that it is a delicate moment and that the contender is a direct competitor for the fourth place, so all he can do for now is to hope that his team refrain from showing their cracks. The mending doesn’t have to start now, but the downfall very well might.