Roma’s late rally not enough to avoid defeat to Napoli

Corriere dello Sport (Alberto Polverosi) Napoli won with another fantastic brace from Mertens and now the race for second place has opened up again, but the race for the title is now almost certainly over after yesterday’s game. Roma will fall 10 points behind Juve, if the reigning champions win in Udine. While the league table might now be a bit more of a cause for concern, as are the 3 consecutive defeats at the Olimpico in 3 different competitions, more pressing for Spalletti are some bitter reflections on his team’s mistakes (as well as his own), on the declining physical condition of his team and on their inability to react to things going wrong, both from one game to the next and within the 90 minutes themselves.

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If you look at the shot count (22 to 13 for Roma) and the times each team hit the woodwork (2-0 to Roma), the home side’s defeat might look undeserved, but instead it was Napoli who won the points on the pitch. Reina was decisive on at least 2 occasions, but only when Roma got their nerves under control, when they began attacking in earnest, when Spalletti used Rudiger as a centre forward – as he did many years ago, on similar occasions, with Daniele Baldini at Empoli – and most importantly only after Napoli had wasted half a dozen chances on the break. At times, Roma played similarly to how they had played against Lazio in the Coppa Italia; they kept hold of the ball (against Napoli, a team who love possession themselves) but without ever really going anywhere with it.

The defence, the most solid part of the Roma side, also fell apart yesterday. This time the mistakes began before the game had even kicked off when, faced with the Neapolitans’ attacking trident, Spalletti decided to change the 3-man defence to a 4-man backline. It wasn’t the number of defenders that was the problem though, but the choice of players for the roles: Rudiger, Manolas, Fazio and Juan Jesus are 4 defenders who like to defend, none of them are used to pushing forward to help out in attack, and none of them could run at Napoli’s full backs – only Rudiger tried to do so, after having (occasionally) played in that position before. It wasn’t a coincidence that, with less than an hour gone, Spalletti realised his mistake and tried to correct it by withdrawing the disastrous Fazio for Bruno Peres, moving Rudiger into the centre. The coach’s other mistake was in preferring El Shaarawy, who has less and less effect by the game, over Salah: when the change was made, Roma became much more dangerous.

The first half was particularly poor, and some of the mistakes being made were incredible given the calibre of players on the pitch: just 74% of Roma’s passes – and 77% of Napoli’s – were successful. After 45 minutes, the best individual on the pitch was referee Banti… Roma were slow, Napoli were hardly creating anything. There was just one shot on target for either side: Nainggolan’s was saved by Reina, while Mertens clipped his shot over Szczesny who had come out a fraction too late. That goal, however, was the result of a mistake by Fazio, the first disaster of his game. Hamsik received the ball in plenty of space (Strootman was too far up the pitch, De Rossi too far back), and played the ball into an area that should have been a small corridor but was instead a gaping chasm because of Fazio’s poor positioning; Mertens simply took a touch and Napoli were in front. That came after 26 minutes. Roma hardly reacted at all.

After 5 minutes of the second half, Napoli struck again; on the counter-attack, thanks to 2 mistakes by Fazio: he gifted the ball to Callejon, and from there Rog, Hamsik and Insigne worked it to the left hand side, and the cross found Mertens free at the back post, left unmarked by Fazio. As against Lazio, Roma’s lack of balance was costly and is the result of their clearly declining levels of fitness. Nainggolan is human once again after playing at an inhuman level for the past few weeks, and that return showed how difficult it was for the Giallorossi to contain Napoli’s rapid counter-attacks. Roma had a day’s less rest, but that can’t be the only explanation for De Rossi, Strootman and Nainggolan’s own performances. Only Perotti, a player who has been used infrequently, looked to attack and take players on down his left hand side.

Napoli had the same comfortable lead as Lazio had on Wednesday night and, like Lazio, made too many errors in front of goal and allowed Roma to start believing in themselves again. Salah was the first to hit the woodwork, Strootman scored after a wonderful assist from Perotti, and in injury time Reina turned a deflected Perotti shot onto the crossbar. Roma can take just one consolation from the game: Strootman’s goal gives them the advantage in the head to head against Napoli (after they won 3-1 at the San Paolo). Who knows, maybe that will be important come the end of the season.

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