On Friday, Napoli face their toughest challenge yet: an evening match at the Stadio Olimpico against AS Roma. In order to take even a point from the top team in Serie A -- a side that has let in just one goal, mind you -- Rafa Benítez is going to have to put out his absolute best side.
There's no question about much of the selection. Gökhan İnler, despite playing the full match for Switzerland against Slovenia on Tuesday night, will take his place beside Valon Behrami, who lounges around the Alps while Blerim Džemaili suits up for his country. In the back, Raúl Albiol will pair up with Miguel Britos, provided the Spaniard is fit. Marek Hamšík, who had a nice relaxing break, guides the side from midfield, while a fit-again Gonzalo Higuaín leads the attack.
But who plays on the left -- Lorenzo Insigne or Dries Mertens? Whoever is chosen is going to be stuck going up against Maicon, who returns for Roma. But with both choices being, well, tiny, it's not as though Benítez can make physicality the defining factor in his choice. It's got to be the one capable of using trickery and fast footwork to get past the best defense in Italy. The edge here, then, must go to Insigne.
Insigne may have yet to score a goal in Serie A, but he's certainly capable of troubling opposing defenses, holding off defenders that seem twice his size while his teammates get themselves into the area. The goal may not have arrived yet, but it's coming, building up like thunderclouds on the horizon. Insigne's free kick against Dortmund showed he can impress, and his knocks against the woodwork against Armenia on Tuesday night demonstrated how determined he is to prove himself. He was the driving force in Italy's attack and, even to many who aren't biased Napoli supporters, the best player on the pitch for the majority of the match.
But that Italy match may be why it's Mertens favored over Insigne. Lorenzo played the entire match for the azzurri, and by the end looked utterly worn out. Mertens, meanwhile, enjoyed a lovely little trip to Zagreb and Brussels, watching Belgium from the bench. The former PSV man has been used primarily from the bench for Napoli this season, but played his first full 90 against Livorno before the break. It can't be denied that Mertens, too, has been quality.
Mertens may not have quite as much flash as Insigne, but he's certainly shown why he was brought to Naples to be a starting player. Put him at almost any other side in Italy and he wouldn't be coming off the bench. He's got a fantastic free kick too, and the same cunning ability to keep hold of the ball. He's not afraid to take a shot and he's prepared to set them up. Giving the Belgian the start wouldn't be a huge step down from Insigne; at least, not in terms of skill.
But there's something about Insigne that is impossible to quantify through mere statistics. It's also not as simple as saying, "the kid's got heart.". But it's something similar. For such a small player, Insigne has a presence. And his passion for playing in the Napoli kit can't be denied. Such qualities are often overvalued by fans. Yet in a match pitting the two top sides in Serie A against one another, when forced to decide between two players of such similar skill sets, it just might be worth picking the one that's got that extra bit of spark.
Choose carefully, Rafa. Otherwise it will be eight wins from eight matches for the giallorossi. And Napoli will sit five points back. With the top of the table so crowded this season, any points dropped might mean the loss of a Champions League spot, to say nothing of the scudetto.