Il Corriere della Sera (Luca Valdiserri) One game can change an entire season and, perhaps, even the future. Saturday’s head to head for 2nd place sees Roma and Napoli go into their respective European ties with differing states of mind (and fitness). In 4 days, Roma have lost at the Olimpico against Lazio (1st leg of the Coppa Italia semi final) and the Partenopei. They hadn’t lost at home in the league since 29th November, 2015 (Roma 0-2 Atalanta), when Rudi Garcia – apparently the root cause of all the team’s problems – was still the coach. Thursday evening’s match in Lyon (1st leg of the Europa League Round of 16) is now their last hope. They need to keep their hopes alive of not having another season of good results but “zeru tituli“. Spalletti needs to find the real Roma again, particularly physically, and quickly.
It was a must-win game for Napoli at the Olimpico. And win they did, even if they struggled right at the end after having controlled the game for over an hour. The 3 points silenced the De Laurentiis/Sarri debate and was the best way possible for them to go into the 2nd leg of their Champions League tie against Real Madrid tomorrow evening. They have to overturn a 3-1 1st leg deficit, a very difficult task but not an impossible one.
Enthusiasm now pervades the city. The fans have already done their part at the box office: the San Paolo is sold out and will earn the club €4.4 million in matchday revenue. Only Milan have earned more (in the quarter finals of the Champions League in 2012) when they brought in €4,689,255 in their match against Barcelona in San Siro. Real Madrid are used to playing decisive matches in passionate stadiums, and the San Paolo will be far from inferior to the Santiago Bernabeu in that regard. Neapolitans are all asking themselves 1 question though: will Dries Mertens recover in time from the late injury he picked up against Roma? The official party line is that the Belgian came off because of cramp, and so he will be available to Maurizio Sarri.
Of course, a day or 2 more to recover would have made things much easier. Mertens showed at the Olimpico that he was the ideal solution to play centre forward. He has already scored 25 goals this season: 18 in the league, 4 in the Champions League and 3 for Belgium. He has gradually accustomed himself to the role, able to make the most of his pace and his calmness in front of goal. At 29 years old he has reached maturity and even though some are worried about the fact his contract expires in June 2018, both he and his partner love Naples and don’t want to leave.
The alternative is more likely to be Milik than Pavoletti, partly because the latter doesn’t have international experience. The Pole, however, showed against Roma that he is still some way off the pace: it was no coincidence that, with Mertens’ exit, Napoli started to suffer much more in the final stages. Pepe Reina’s father Miguel, formerly an excellent goalkeeper himself for Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, paid tribute to his son from Spain: “I saw the game against Roma and I was very happy with how the team played. Everyone did well. I’m particularly happy for Pepe and for the save he made at the end of the game.”
Roma paid the price for that, and after their triumphant victory against Inter their subsequent 2 defeats last week risk redefining their season. Luciano Spalletti has repeated that his team aren’t tired and cited the positive end to the game against Napoli as proof. But it is nearly always the same players who play, and the winter transfer window didn’t bring them any reinforcements. The coach had made requests: Rincon or Badelj, even if it meant sacrificing Paredes, and Defrel as backup for Dzeko. But the club’s finances – as the mid-year balance of -€53.4m showed – are more red than yellow. And the renewal of his contract, which expires in June, remains a mystery.