Luciano Spalletti and José Mourinho collide in a highly-anticipated edition of the Derby del Sole, where Roma will be the latest team trying to halt Napoli’s irresistible run.
Serie A Week 20 – Sunday 29 January 2023 – Stadio Diego Armando Maradona | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Napoli passed their final test with flying colors, which was how they would react to their first losses. They laid an egg versus Inter, where they had their worst showing of the season in a match with months of anticipation. They breezed past Sampdoria afterward, which isn’t much of a feat, were stunningly eliminated by Cremonese in Coppa Italia, but thoroughly thumped Juventus to quash all concerns.
That result, as they destroyed the most credible contender at the time, given their momentum and room for improvement because of the injured players about to return, definitely stomped their authority on the league. The sports justice took out the Bianconeri shortly thereafter, but the victory was so sound that there won’t be any asterisk or doubt should they win the Scudetto. Inter and Milan confirmed to be rather flawed in ensuing matches to add to their certainties.
At this point, Napoli are racing against themselves, but they have already overcome so many challenges that it’s hard to foresee what could sink them. They kept winning without Victor Osimhen early on, and he has proven to be the most dominant and prolific striker in Italy. They lose some oomph when Khvicha Kvaratskhelia isn’t there, but they have prevailed convincingly even without him. Linchpins like Kim Min-Jae, Frank Anguissa, and Piotr Zielinski had dips here and there, but nothing that severely hindered them thanks to the brilliance of their other contributors, the solidity of their system, and the steady guidance of Spalletti. The lengthy break was a question mark for everybody, but it hasn’t altered their performances in meaningful fashion despite dropping the very first fixture after it. Some hierarchies changed, probably mostly due to lack of conditioning, but nothing too dramatic.
The upcoming challenge will be to confirm their elite level in the Champions League and how far they will go. They thrived in the group stage, but the knockout rounds are a different beast. They should smash Porto on paper, but you never know. It’d be better for Serie A if they had a deep run knocking down some powerhouses along the way because, if even a team so good doesn’t have a ton of success in Europe, it’d be a very troubling sign for everybody.
It appears that their January window will stop at a rather pointless swap between Salvatore Sirigu and Pierluigi Gollini, which only helps the bruised egos of the two goalies that hoped to be starters but lost the job, or really didn’t have a shot in the veteran’s case. They have two or more options in each role, so they don’t need much. However, despite some rumors, especially about Azzedine Ounahi, they don’t seem close to completing any deal for the future, and that would be a little disappointing considering that they should use the advantage they accumulated and the fact that they are set for now to complete forward-thinking moves. The next few months will be fascinating since Piotr Zielinski and Victor Osimhen’s contracts expire in 2024. Considering what happened last summer, they might opt against handing out large wages, and retool on the fly once again.
That will be a matter for another day, as another big game awaits them. Given the lead they have built, it’ll be intriguing to see whether they’ll tweak their approach a little in matches of this magnitude, toning down their aggression to avoid exposing their defense and play not to lose for once, but that’s unlikely.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Meret; Di Lorenzo, Rrahmani, Kim, Rui; Anguissa, Lobotka, Zielinski; Politano, Osimhen, Kvaratshkelia.
Roma are in the best stretch of their season, as they followed up the desperate comeback versus Milan with two commanding wins over Fiorentina and Spezia relative to their standards. Unlike the fire-breathing opponents, they won’t blow out anybody even on their day, but they’d always settle for a shutout win without giving up many chances.
They have conceded only versus the Rossoneri in 2023, and they’ll be in a great spot if the defense continues to carry them in easier fixtures. As long as Paulo Dybala is in good form, it always feels like they’ll be able to do damage on offense. Tammy Abraham snapping out of his funk was a tremendous development, and his recent showings add to the bafflement as to why it took him this long to get going. His agility and energy are perfect for their style, and he immediately established a connection with La Joya. Perhaps he was just way in his head.
Juventus being taken out of the Champions League race is a double-edged sword for a few teams. While a spot is now up for grabs, that also comes with the weight of expectations. Nobody would have complained too much if Roma, Lazio, and Atalanta missed out on a top-four finish beforehand, but the race is open now, and two of those sides will be left disappointed at the end of the season. Even when they weren’t technically that in the standings, the Giallorossi have generally felt like the fifth-best team in Serie A, and they’ll have to prove it the rest of the way.
There’s also a good chunk of their future at stake too. The Champions League prize money would offset some Financial Fair Play restrictions, giving them more room to operate on the transfer market. José Mourinho has turned down offers from national teams, but his contract will expire in 2024, so he’s due for an extension in the summer. That is if he wants to stay. How they finish this season might be pivotal in his decision too.
It wouldn’t be Roma if there weren’t some dysfunction and self-inflicted drama. The Nicolò Zaniolo affair might hang over their heads of the way if they don’t find a solution in the next couple of days, which seems like a stretch at this point. Their price tag was optimistic, but a team was willing to meet it. It would be much better for them if he moved abroad, as there’s always a chance he gets back on track in the right environment, and it would be a shame if he did it in another Serie A side.
They’d have to reconcile if he stays, and they still need him, or another attacker of the same caliber, to rotate when the schedule gets busy. While mouth-watering, using their top four players together had more downsides than virtues in their usual scheme. Zaniolo tends to fall to the background since Dybala and Lorenzo Pellegrini hold the ball a lot and are more impactful, often making him an afterthought. They wouldn’t be wrong in replacing him with a top-notch box-to-box midfielder, but that’s probably a matter for the summer.
The defense will face the ultimate test, and considering how Napoli dismantled the best one in the league, Juventus’, stopping them is a daunting task. On the other hand, Massimiliano Allegri was uncharacteristically and inexplicably daring in that game, and José Mourinho won’t make that mistake. Their most physical midfield pair, Nemanja Matic and Bryan Cristante worked well recently, and the former Manchester United man has been noticeably better than before in recent tilts.
Naturally, given the whole Rick Karsdorp ordeal, Zeki Celik is suspended in a big game. Nicola Zalewski and Leonardo Spinazzola can adapt to the right wing, but it remains a suboptimal situation. Kvaratskhelia has already abused players that weren’t superb defensively on that flank. They don’t have alternatives, if not out-of-the-box ones, and they’ll have to compensate with other adjustments. Stephan El Shaarawy is also an option for the wings, and he’s been a real weapon as of late. The Special One sometimes fields conservative lineups against minnows and more aggressive ones in crunch matches, so you never know what he could come up with.
The doubts about the XI are whether Kvaratshkelia will be in the starting lineup right away after a bout with the flu, and that seems to be the case, and whether Elijf Elmas, who’s in great form, will get the nod, either on the wings, since he has gained some experience on both, or over Piotr Zielinski, who hasn’t been great after the World Cup. Mathias Olivera occasionally relieves Mario Rui for defensive purposes in big matches.
Expected XI (3-4-1-2): Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Ibanez; Zalewski, Cristante, Matic, Spinazzola; Pellegrini; Dybala, Abraham.
Roma: Zaniolo, Karsdorp (transfer market), Celik (suspension), Wijnaldum (fibula fracture), Darboe (ACL tear).