There’s little doubt as to the top match as Serie A returns from the latest international break, with Napoli and Roma meeting for the seventh Derby del Sole since the start of 2014. The two have emerged as the greatest threat to Juventus’ dominance in Italy at present, and a victory for either side on Saturday afternoon could be crucial to keeping touch with the Old Lady, who are already four points clear.
In truth, both sides have had a disappointing start to the season in terms of results, dropping 7 (Napoli) and 8 (Roma) points respectively. There would certainly be a sense that even a stalemate between the two in Naples could be the beginning of the end of their respective title aspirations. Playing for a point, then, seems an unlikely tactic from either side, no matter how tempting it may be for the visitors.
A look at this season’s form in terms of home and away matches this season would suggest that there’s only one likely winner at the San Paolo. Indeed, both of these sides have come unstuck on three occasions on the road already this season, with Saturday’s travellers Roma picking up just one point away thus far. Napoli have won just once on the road this season themselves – against lowly Palermo – but are faultless at home, scoring nine goals en route to nine points.
Perhaps more pertinently than that, and again pointing the outcome of this game in the favour of Napoli, has been the importance of home advantage in this fixture. There hasn’t been an away win when these sides have come to blows in their last 11 meetings, with Roma aiming for the same outcome from that day in 2011. On the scoresheet for the Giallorossi in a 3-1 win that day was Dani Osvaldo, who was also the last Roma player to score at San Paolo in a 4-1 defeat back in January 2013. There has, in fact, not been a single away goal in the last 6 matches between these sides.
The hosts, however, have suffered blows in recent weeks, first falling to a shock defeat in Atalanta ahead of the international break before losing Arkadiusz Milik during it. It’s left Partenopei boss Maurizio Sarri with a dilemma ahead of this massive game, with Napoli having even been linked to the aforementioned Osvaldo – currently a free agent – in an attempt to cover for Milik’s lengthy absence.
For now, at least, Sarri has two options. Manolo Gabbiadini is the more obvious and perhaps likely alternative but is short of confidence, which will only have exacerbated following links to numerous strikers to fill the Milik void. The 24-year old has started three of six appearances this season, scoring once, but has seen his development stunted in the last two seasons after an excellent record in the 2014/15 campaign that saw him earn a January move to Napoli. With Higuain now gone and Milik sidelined, this could be Gabbiadini’s chance to shine but he’ll need to come good quickly if Sarri is to entrust him with the centre-forward role.
Another alternative suggested has been to deploy one of the club’s wide forwards in a false nine system, with Jose Callejon perhaps the standout candidate. The Spaniard has not only started this season in fine form in front of goal to lead Napoli’s Serie A scoring charts with 5, but has a strong record in this particular fixture. The 29-year old has scored in each of the Partenopei’s last three home victories over Roma. It’s Callejon, then, that may be a good bet for an anytime goalscorer, though there will be plenty of money on the opposing striker on Saturday.
After a difficult debut season in the Italian capital, Edin Dzeko has hit an imperial purple patch – as James Horncastle discussed in this Serie A expert column – and will hope to continue his rich vein of form this weekend. With five goals in the league and two on international duty against Cyprus in the week, the former Manchester City is starting to mute his many critics in Italy. That said, he’s taken twice as many shots (40) as Callejon to reach the same league tally.
While the absence of Milik may detract ever so slightly from this spectacle then, there is still plenty of firepower on either side to ensure that an entertaining affair awaits. With both keen to avoid an early slip up, the first half may be a little cagey between two sides that like to play possession football. However, things should open up in the second as both teams attempt to put pressure on Juventus at the top. Indeed, with 11 goals scored after the break in the last 6 matches between these two at the San Paolo – compared to just four in the first half – expect a footballing feast in the latter stages, and one that is not to be missed!