Considering the recent results and events and their precarious position in the standings, a lot will be at stake in the Derby del Sole, with the two sides limping toward the end of the calendar year.
Serie A Week 17– Saturday 23 December 2023 – Stadio Olimpico | Preview by Enrico Passarella
The fray for the European berths is so busy and competitive this year that the formula they have leaned on so far, feasting on the minnows and trying to survive in the most challenging matches, sometimes drawing and more often losing, might not be enough to make it since there are more sides seriously vying for them than usual.
If, by any chance, Serie A gets an extra Champions League team, which is very possible, and they end up on the outside looking in, that’d be a cataclysm of biblical dimensions. They’ll have to step up in crunch matches to fortify their status. Things are so tight that a pair of missteps, albeit understandable, were enough for them to plummet in the standings.
José Mourinho’s style resembles Massimiliano Allegri’s, but his colleague can lean on a much sturdier defense. Roma’s attack instills fear into the opponents only when Romelu Lukaku and Paulo Dybala are on the pitch together. Unfortunately, that’s a rare event since La Joya has been even more banged up than normal this campaign. Since the coach turns up the intensity only in late-game situations when they absolutely need to score, they are in big trouble whenever the enemies hit the net once or twice, and that’s not rare.
Their once promising summer window has almost completely unraveled in recent weeks, except for Lukaku, and even he has abated relative to his early displays. The need to adjust to a new league and team is no longer a valid justification, and neither is the lack of minutes. Evan N’Dicka is young and will probably improve over time, but he’s flat-out sloppy and unreliable at this stage.
The Special One has seemingly discarded Houssem Aouar, at least until he bulks up or becomes grittier, because he’s not the warrior-like player he likes to field. Renato Sanches has been plagued by continuous injuries, which have gotten in his head at this point, making him tentative. The charade in the last tilt likely didn’t help. Rasmus Kristensen has been fine as of late, but he, too has had his ups and downs and didn’t fully win over the gaffer, who often preferred Rick Karsdorp in Serie A even though the Dane was ineligible in Europe. Sardar Azmoun is trending positively in recent fixtures, but he only gets minutes sparingly.
Hindsight is 20/20 and, while they didn’t have a big budget and had to scrounge for quality players, their choices left a lot to be desired, at least so far. Adding to the paltry mix a mysterious injury to one of their pillars, Chris Smalling, and the fact that Lorenzo Pellegrini has been a shell of himself and unable to round into form after a pair of thigh problems, it’s not hard to comprehend why they have been so lackluster. Perhaps their position should be seen in a more positive light given the duress, but it’s tough to do that when a few clubs with inferior caliber are above or near them on the table.
They’ll have to acquire a new defender pronto at the start of the January window, perhaps even two to be safe. But the market won’t save them because of their well-known restrictions, and the real hope for a turnaround and consistency goes through their top players staying healthy and in acceptable shape for two or three months in a row. It’s not a great place to be, but it’s the only viable strategy.
They are quite in a pickle about the future of Mourinho. They’ll surely be happy to keep him in an ideal scenario, as they are not going to find a better coach considering that his contribution spreads well beyond the pitch and that he is a draw for players. Plus, his successor would be an up-and-comer who will start a completely new project, probably with a very different squad, with all the perils entailed by that. Yet, given their struggling finances, a top-paid manager might not be the wisest investment, especially if they fall short of expectations and their playing style is ancient.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Patricio; Mancini, Llorente, N’Dicka; Kristensen, Cristante, Paredes, Pellegrini, Zalewski; Lukaku, Belotti.
Doubts: Mancini/Bove, Zalewski/Spinazzola, Belotti/El Shaarawy.
Injury Report: Mancini (sports hernia) – Probable; Dybala (thigh strain), Kumbula, Abraham (ACL tears), Smalling (patellar tendon injury), Aouar (thigh strain) – OUT.
The drubbing in Coppa Italia at the hands of Frosinone was a proper kick to the midsection, as the victory over Cagliari, although it wasn’t impressive, could have been the turning point they had been dying for. Instead, despite all the justifications, they went backward in horrifying fashion, as the Ciociari pulled away in the score when they inserted their main starters.
Since their psyche is quite volatile to say the least, Walter Mazzarri will have to be masterful in handling this game. Another negative result could properly sink them. Even though they are better than most, if not all, teams vying for a Champions League berth, they won’t just be handed one. They’ll have to work for it, and this is a seminal game in that respect.
While things seem to have normalized behind the scenes after the coaching change, and that’s already an improvement, there was basically no new manager’s bump because their schedule was brutal. They were unable to obtain that galvanizing win against sides in better form that would have greatly re-energized them.
Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia returning to form in the previous matchday provided some hope, but they are about to lose the former for multiple rounds due to AFCON. The Georgian has so far been unable to replicate his previous heroics, perhaps because defenders have studied him better and gaffers are strategizing to stop him and he hasn’t come up with alternative ways to wreak havoc, or because he has rarely seemed as totally right physically, sprightly and locked in as in the past. It’s probably a combination of the two, and only great players can keep up a dominating level. He’ll have something to prove in the second half of the campaign since nobody has the luxury of living off past performances.
While Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone have been okay production-wise, something is missing from the leadership and fear factor standpoint when Osimhen is out since he’s clearly the head of the table. It’s about to resume being a major problem. The main candidate to pick up the slack is Kvaratshkelia, but he has been better as second-in-command so far. It’d aid them immensely if he could take it up a notch.
Mazzarri has so far confirmed 4-3-3 and all his statements have been going in that direction, but one has to wonder how long it’ll be before he starts thinking about the schemes he used in the past, such as 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1. Coaches generally prefer to lean on what they are most comfortable with in trying times. And, if things were normal, the decision about which formation to use would be his own only and not come from the higher-ups. They’d have the pieces to pull off the second one quite well if they were quick to add a physical midfielder to substitute for Frank Anguissa in early January, but they could also go with the Stanislav Lobotka and Piotr Zielinski combo since there’d be an extra man behind them. All their defenders fit a three-man line quite well. But it’s highly unlikely to happen unless the boss is given carte blanche.
It feels like everything needs to be right for them to win, and that’s a stark comparison from last season, when they could just waltz their way through easier fixtures, as one of their cornerstones, or likely multiple, would eventually come through with a signature plays. That’s rarely the case, even in normal situations, let alone with all the trouble they had to go through, including some self-inflicted ones. They’ll defy an equally wounded animal, so it’ll be very interesting to see whose woes are less crippling and more correctible in a short amount of time.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Meret; Di Lorenzo, Rrahmani, Natan, Rui; Anguissa, Lobotka, Zielinski; Politano, Osimhen, Kvaratskhelia.
Doubts: Rui/Jesus, Anguissa/Cajuste, Zielinski/Gaetano.
Injury Report: Anguissa (foot bruise) – Probable; Zielinski (knee soreness), Lindstrom (back pain) – Questionable; Elmas (thigh strain), Olivera (knee sprain) – OUT.
Napoli Win – Over 2.5 Goals