Fanalysis is one year old today! How time has flown! Well to celebrate this landmark, both James and Sam both travelled to Rome to watch a highly-anticipated Serie A game, while also keeping up to date with the ever-consistently entertaining Premier League round of fixtures. And boy did the weekend not disappoint!
It was Friday morning, and early starts kicked off proceedings with both of us converging into the Italian capital in the centre of the country (James from the north and Sam from the south). With the ‘Super Saturday’ prepared for in advance, the day before was more relaxed and this enabled us to sample in the beauty of the city with regards to its culture. In this space of one afternoon, St Peters Square in the Vatican City, remarkably a minute’s walk from our rented apartment, the Colosseum and the Piazza Venezia were all ticked off from the bucket list. The weather was a delight, and with the temperature on the brink of the 20 degree mark along with blue skies and blinding sunshine, you could have easily mistaken it for the south of France in the middle of August. Cue mid-afternoon gelato, after a traditional Italian pizza for lunch. All there was to do after that was have a chilled dinner with some mates; a few more drinks back at the flat, and get our much-needed rest ahead of a busy day on Saturday.
The following morning, after some more pizza and delicious arancini, we were ready for the highlight of the weekend; for at the Stadio Olimpico that afternoon was a top-of-the-table clash (ish). Italian giants AS Roma were taking on fellow title contenders SSC Napoli, and we were desperately hoping for a repeat of their classic, end-to-end encounter in September, with Roma coming out on top by three goals to one. For the visitors, the hope of catching up with defending champions Juventus was a few points too far, but a win for the home side would take them to only four points off the Old Lady ahead of their fixture the following day away to Udinese. Napoli also had to be wary of the teams over their shoulders, with Lazio and Atlanta, the latter having stunned them at home only seven days before, only points behind, so falling out of the Champions League places would be the consequence of being beaten that afternoon.
Both sides had suffered recent setbacks before the match, with both being involved in midweek cup action. As well as the Atlanta defeat, Napoli suffered another defeat away to Juventus in their first-leg semi-final clash, while Roma were wounded after experiencing a derby defeat to Lazio in the same stage of the competition. Yet it was only Roma who made the significant changes to their starting eleven. With the home side used to a typical Italian 3-4-3, coach Luciano Spaletti reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with German defender Antonio Rudiger moving to a right-back position, and on loan Spurs defender Federico Fazio partnering Kostas Manolas at the back. Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi combined to create a pivot in midfield with Radjia Naingolan the creative influence at number ten. Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy were the wide men supporting Edin Dzeko, the league’s top goalscorer, up front, leaving Mohammed Salah and cult hero Francesco Totti on the bench. The away side stuck to the same system that has given them great success this season on the counter attack. Their front three of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon has been dynamite all season and all started on Saturday, with Marek Hamsik behind them in an attacking midfield position. At the back, Raul Albiol partnered Kalidou Koulibaly, heavily linked to Chelsea in the summer, in front of former Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
You could feel the importance of the match in the air and although the stadium was far from sold out, the Roma fans in the ‘Curva Sud’ had turned out in their numbers. There were very few empty seats in the stand behind the goal that we were seated in, and when the Roma anthem was blasted out through the sound system minutes before kick off, you really felt that that was the place to be in the stadium. Scarves were held up high, and thousands challenged the optimum levels of their vocal chords; these were the true AS Roma fans, this club was their lives. It wasn’t quite the Yellow Wall of Dortmund, but it was a good effort. Compared to the home section, the away fans were below satisfactory, as you could have easily counted the number of supporters that had turned out for Napoli. Perhaps away following isn’t as popular in Italy as it is in England, but I felt this had something to do with the fact that going to Roma away was known as going to ‘Stab City’ so no wonder many Napoli fans decided to stay at home for this one.
The game kicked off, and the first half was played out exactly as we predicted; Roma dominated the possession but Napoli were a major threat on the counter attack and it was them who had the majority of the first-half chances. About fifteen minutes in, a ball from the left fell to Mertens but could only head it over from six yards; he should have scored. This sparked Roma into life a little, and the home side thought they had the lead when Perotti fired home from the edge of the area, but had used his hand to control the ball. With the game at a good tempo it was only a matter of time before the first goal went in and it came on the half hour mark, Hamsik released Mertens in on goal, a perfectly weighted ball which confused Fazio in defence, and the Belgian winger-turned-striker clipped it in over former Arsenal ‘keeper Wojiech Szczesny (no copy and paste used I promise). The Belgian wheeled away to the corner flag to celebrate by impersonating a dog urinating with is leg high in the air, which was rather strange but riled the home fans behind the goal. Roma tried to respond to this setback, but Napoli’s defence was too strong despite the home side’s dominant possession. Nothing went through Koulibaly and Albiol all game, while Faouzi Ghoulam put in a strong display at left back. The only criticism of the Napoli defence was on the right had side with Elseid Hysaj being targeted as the weak point in the back four by El Shaarwary and Periotti. Roma’s best chance of the half came from this side as Strootman fired over from inside the area, but an excellent first half ended shortly after.
The heavens opened for the second period and Roma changed their shape to the formation that they were used to. Juan Jesus was moved from a left back to a centre back to partner Fazio and Manolas, Rudiger was pushed forward to a right wing-back position while Perotti performed the same role on the other side of the pitch. El Shaarawy was moved closer to Dzeko who had endured an anonymous first forty-five minutes, though he was marked out the game by an excellent Koulibaly and Albiol. This change by Spaletti was deemed rather strange as Roma hadn’t been playing badly in the first half and were still very much in the game, and this backfired on them five minutes in the second half, as Rudiger struggled to track back the rapid Insigne, who crossed for Mertens to tap into an empty net. It was a major blow to the atmosphere amongst the home fans and it was a long way back to parity. Spaletti changed things once more, with Fazio being replaced by regular right wing-back Bruno Paredes, and Salah was brought in as a straight swap for El Shaarawy. These changes gave the home side a lot more width, but Napoli’s defensive display was still too strong for them to find a breakthrough.
The game lulled a little bit before it kicked back into life fifteen minutes before the end. Roma became more desperate, which meant they had more sting in their attacks, while Napoli continued to frustrate them by being very quick on the break. Rudiger nearly but the ball into his own net from one of these counter attacks, while Szczesny saved well from Marco Rog who went one-on-one with the Pole. It didn’t look like it was going to be Roma’s day when Salah went through and hit the inside of the post and out; but the home side finally got their reward for their persistence and Strootman set himself to sweep home a cut back to half the deficit. There was a minute of normal time to play with five additional minutes of stoppage time. The kitchen sink was thrown at the Napoli defence who were starting to creak. Perotti, who had been Roma’s most dangerous player all afternoon, had two big chances to restore parity. For the first chance he fired wide after he tried to open his body to curl into Reina’s far corner, and the second nearly clinched an unlikely point for the home side. Laid off by Rudiger, his shot from the edge of the area cannoned off the large frame of Koulibaly and was heading for the top corner, only for Reina to tip it onto the bar and away. Countless penalty shouts and successive Roma corners followed for the final minutes, but Napoli held firm for a much-needed win.
It was a brilliant game, end-to-end stuff with glorious build-up play to match. The Roma fans, despite their disappointment, sang their team off the field at the full-time whistle; a moment that you would never see in English football. Roma threw everything at their opponents, and could have easily got a point, but it would have been harsh on Napoli who defended like lions all game. The Stadio Olimpico had given us a feast of an encounter, but the football did not end there…..
Want to know more? Part 2 coming later this week. Watch this space!