Note: the time of the Coppa tie has been changed to 9 p.m. CET, 3 p.m. ET
The Coppa Italia isn't all that important in Italian football, except to sides looking for an alternate entry into Europe. Yet at the same time, clubs usually want to avoid disgracing themselves. That's pretty much what happened to Napoli last season. Three days after a 3-2 loss to Bologna at the San Paolo, the rossoblu made Napoli a joke once more, eliminating the Coppa holders in a 2-1 win, once more in Naples.
And now Napoli face a similar opponent, taking on Atalanta, currently in 13th. The good news for our partenopei is that the majority of the reason la dea are up so high in the table is down to their performances at home. Away from Bergamo, Atalanta have won just once (against Chievo) and drew once (against Genoa). And while they managed a draw against Roma at the Atleti Azzurri d'Italia, when Juventus came to town, they lost 4-1.
Can they do it on a cold night in Naples?
Atalanta haven't faced strong opposition in the Coppa. In the third round, they saw off Bari, who are struggling to avoid relegation in Serie B, 3-0 at home. Then came Sassuolo, again in Bergamo, setting off Sassuolo's five game goalless run. But now, they've got a much harder task: emerging unscathed from the San Paolo.
The last time Atalanta came to Naples, in mid-September, they left with a 2-0 defeat, the goals coming from José Callejón and Gonzalo Higuaín. Atalanta also had a grand total of eleven shots, the majority of those coming in the first half and many of them coming from outside the area. They obviously came in search of a point, something that can't really happen in a Coppa match.
Their recent form hasn't been fantastic either. La dea are one of the rare teams to boast of a loss to Milan. There was also the aforementioned loss to Juventus, a draw at Genoa and a loss at Verona. Last weekend, Atalanta beat last-placed Catania, but needed a penalty from Germán Denis to start scoring. Maxi Morales added another with five minutes to go, which was good for the hosts as Catania grabbed one in injury time.
With Cagliari visiting next, Atalanta don't need to worry all that much about resting players. But they've got some injuries to deal with, and they've left top goalscorer Denis behind in Bergamo. It's likely Marko Livaja will be starting up top, while Giuseppe De Luca, who hasn't made an appearance yet this season, may get a look as well.
Just because it seems easy, doesn't mean it will be
After years growing accustomed to Walter Mazzarri, it's hard to take any Napoli match at face value. The ones that are meant to be the easiest are often the ones in which the partenopei drop points. It's happened this season as well, with the draws against Cagliari, Udinese and Sassuolo, and the loss to Parma.
So can Napoli make it through this test and advance to the next round?
Well, one thing might help: the return of Marek Hamšík. Marekiaro was on the bench against Sampdoria, but Rafa Benítez didn't see a need to risk the midfielder. It seems he's likely to get the start tonight, however, which may be enough to boost the side.
And they might need a boost, considering the rumored defense. Yeah, Pablo Armero is staying in, but it seems Napoli's best player against Samp, Christian Maggio, needs a rest (considering he went all out on Sunday, I don't blame Rafa for this one). That means Anthony Réveillère gets a start. But probably not an entire game. Can he go an entire game?
Rafa needs to stick with one of Gokhan Inler and Blerim Džemaili in midfield, and it looks like Inler will get the nod. That means Josip Radošević should get the start - it'd be nice to see him for more than a few minutes, closing out the game. It's also being said that Duván Zapata will step in for Pipita, although the Argentine will be available if things don't go as expected.
This should be simple enough for Napoli. But we all know the partenopei like to keep us on our toes. Let's just sit back, hope for the best and try to enjoy seeing a few different faces on the pitch.