“We go to Naples to win ugly” was the rallying cry from Roma coach Claudio Ranieri 24 hours before the Derby Della Sud. Unbeaten in the league since October, Ranieri was certainly true to his word when the team line-ups were announced. The “tinkerman” returned to form as he opted for a 3-1-4-2 formation deploying Philippe Mexes, Nicolas Burdisso and Juan as a three man central defence. Daniele De Rossi was positioned just in front for extra security, with John Arne Riise and Marco Motta acting as wide men in a quartet that also featured Rodrigo Taddei and Simone Perrotta. The weekend’s tragic events in Chile had robbed the Giallorossi of the services of David Pizarro who stayed behind to await news of his family back home and Luca Toni and Francesco Totti who were still not ready to take to the field together. Julio Baptista and Mirko Vucinic would lead a two pronged attack. For the Partnopei, talisman Ezequiel Lavezzi returned to partner Fabio Quagliarella in attack, Marik Hamsik would play just behind the strikers.
In the opening exchanges, Ranieri’s master plan was working to perfection, the Giallorossi were suffocating Napoli’s midfield with Lavezzi unable to make any in roads into the game. On the stroke of half-time, the hosts almost took the lead when Quagliarella found space on the left and crossed to an unmarked Christian Maggio who headed down with so much power that the ball bounced agonisingly over goalkeeper Doni’s crossbar. The blue touch paper had been lit and the second period saw the Vesuviani take the game to the visitors. Philippe Mexes was having a much better game than he did in the Europa League defeat to Panathinaikos, and along with Juan and Burdisso was keeping the door firmly locked. The Capital club were reduced to counter-attacks and were beginning to look dangerous on the break and 13 minutes into the second-half, they were awarded a spot kick after Michele Pazienza’s clumsy challenge on Baptista gave referee Rizzoli no choice but to award a penalty which Baptista duly despatched. With Milan and Inter Milan both winning, this was a priceless lead for Ranieri’s men and when Vucinic doubled their money seven minutes later with a wonderful curling right foot shot, it seemed the points were secure. Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri had to change his formation and he did so by bringing on a third striker in the Argentinian German Denis to replace the hapless Pazienza. It proved to be an inspired substitution when with 15 minutes to go, the big striker smashed a left foot thunderbolt past the flailing Doni to bring his side back into the match. Ranieri counteracted by sacrificing Baptista to bring on an extra midfielder in Ricardo Faty as his side reverted to a 4-5-1. Roma were hanging on as Napoli looked to protect their incredible home record and with time running out, the contest was turned on its head when referee Rizzoli controversially awarded the home side a penalty – the official from Bologna adjudging that a tussle in the visitor’s penalty area between Mexes and Denis had resulted in the Frenchman handling the ball. Replays suggested that the ball had hit his thigh and then rolled up onto his arm it was a contentious decision. Hamsik kept his cool amid seething tensions to secure a point for his side and destroy Ranieri’s title ambitions.
Sunday evening saw more bonfires being lit in the stands at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin. This could only mean one thing – Juventus had lost yet another home game, their fifth of the season. This time it was former Bianconeri striker Fabrizio Miccoli who returned to torture his former employers. His majestic strike 15 minutes into the second-half was a personal triumph for the little man from Lecce who seemed to be on a one man mission to bring down La Vecchia Signora. When Zdenek Grygera’s aberration nine minutes from time gifted substitute Igor Budan his fifth goal of the season, it was all too much for a disgruntled tifosi who lit up the night sky with another pyrotechnic display. In the VIP area, the injured Gianluigi Buffon looked on helplessly as did the holy trinity of club director Roberto Bettega, club President Jean-Claude Blanc and Sporting Director Alessio Secco as the islanders celebrated a rare victory in Turin. There is no doubt that it will take time for the players to adjust to new coach Alberto Zaccheroni’s ideas and some will say that the side has been decimated by injury, but the truth is that this Juventus side has lost its heart and lost its direction and if things don’t improve both on and off the pitch, its dignity.