The first fixtures past the halfway stage of the Serie A calendar kick off this weekend with a reversal of the opening day ties which sees Roma travel to Naples to face the team with the best home record in Serie A. Napoli have turned the Stadio San Paolo into a fortress this season, winning eight with only Cagliari taking points from them after Daniele Conti’s equaliser in the fifth minute of time added on. The Giallorossi meanwhile are the peninsula’s in-form side, taking an impressive 19 points from a possible 24.
Having lost their hold on fourth spot with the defeat at Chievo, the Azzurri now sit two points behind Genoa and have i Lupi breathing down their necks following the Roman’s astonishing charge up the table. A win for Luciano Spalletti’s men will bring them level on points with their southern rivals, though the Little Donkeys have a superior goal difference.
If Napoli’s away record was as impressive as their home form, they would be runaway leaders, but since their rioting fans slapped the Italian authorities in the face on the opening day of the season when they hi-jacked a train and caused an estimated £300,000 worth of damage, the club have not had support on the road. This appears to have hindered their motivation on the pitch and subsequently the Azzurri have only collected eight points from a possible 30. With this fixture being regarded as a high-risk encounter, Roma fans have been refused the right to travel to Naples and will have to watch the game from the capital where without their vociferous encouragement, and they may well witness their team suffer the same problems the Azzurri have on their travels.
Edoardo Reja’s deployment of wing-backs gives his side’s attacking instinct more purpose whilst remaining solid at the back. They have 19 goals to the credit at home, conceding just five. Cristian Maggio and Daniele Mannini are the men required to break down the flanks and provide ammunition for joint top-scorer German Denis. The Argentinean has found the net on seven occasions and will pressure the Giallorossi backline each time the ball is hurled into the penalty area. Paolo Cannavaro, Leandro Rinaudo and Matteo Contini will take up positions in the centre of defense protecting Matteo Gianello, deputising for the absent Gennaro Iezzo in goal. The Azzurri’s most present player so far this season, Walter Gargano, will shield the rear-trequartiste from midfield. The Partenopei have a solid defensive unit the Romans will find difficult to penetrate.
The current idol of Naples is undoubtedly Ezequiel Lavezzi, a bond so strong many Vesuviani tifosi have called for the prestigious number 10 shirt, made legendary by the playmakers fellow countrymen Diego Maradona and last worn by Roberto Sosa in 2006, to be brought out of retirement and granted to the Argentinean striker. Chelsea target Lavezzi will be eager to turn in a stellar performance and having denied reports of a move away from Naples will want to assure the Neapolitan faithful they have no cause for concern.
Marek Hamsik is another player also having to deny reports of a move, but the Slovakian will not have the luxury of attaining the tifosi’s faith as he misses out through suspension following his dismissal at Chievo. Either Luigi Vitale or Michele Pazienza will fill in alongside Manuele Blasi.
Roma will be boosted by the return of key players, Simone Perrotta, and Mirko Vucinic, who both missed the win over Torino through suspension. With Francesco Totti having just recovered from his latest injury – as always, miraculously earlier than expected – Er Pupone could be in line for a surprise start at the Stadio San Paolo. Without Totti, Coach Luciano Spalletti was forced to change the shape of his side in their last outing, but will revert to his preferred 4-3-2-1 for the visit to Naples. The Giallorossi had struggled for form and goals when missing important figures early in the season, but in recent weeks, other players have been weighing in with all important contributions, most notably Julio Baptista.
The powerful Brazilian they call the Beast is beginning to show the Roma tifosi his true colours and after a less than convincing start to his tenure in the Eternal City, is now repaying some of the £7m the club shelled out to Real Madrid. A crucial last gasp winner at Torino on the back of the two superb strikes he grabbed against Sampdoria secured his side precious points and have pulled i Lupi right back into contention for a lucrative Champions League spot.
The return to fitness of Cristian Panucci will also please the Coach and the experienced defender stepped in to take the armband and lead his team from centre-back in the win over Sampdoria. Though he looked sharp and came through the game unscathed, he was not risked for the trip to Torino. Former Liverpool man, John Arne Riise has done well since coming into the side to cover for Panucci and deserves to continue his run in the side, but Spalletti is likely to favour the more experienced Italian against the flying wing-backs of the Azzurri. The usual defensive unit of Marco Cassetti will come in for the suspended Cicinho, and line up alongside Panucci, Juan and Philippe Mexes to protect Alexander Doni in goal.
Much of Roma’s success comes from the quality they have in midfield. Daniele De Rossi and Matteo Brighi can interchange roles between defense and attack and if one ventures forward the other drops back to cover. Any number of players could take the role linking midfield to attack. Rodrigo Taddei is the most favoured, though David Pizarro and promising youngster Alberto Aquilani offer more invention in tight areas around the box. Summer acquisition Jeremy Menez is also an option, though with Vucinic occupying the position on the left flank, the best the young Frenchman can hope for is a cameo appearance from the bench.
The atmosphere inside the Stadio San Paolo will be fiercely one-sided and having played themselves back into contention for a top four finish, Roma face a test of mental strength, self-motivation and determination whilst Napoli will want to ensure they remain unbeaten at home. This could be a cagey affair, but nonetheless interesting.