Napoli won a huge match yesterday, overcoming a 3-2 aggregate scoreline by whipping the league's best defensive side 3-0 in the home leg. How did Rafa Benitez manage this feat against such tough opposition?
In short, he utterly out-foxed Rudi Garcia in his tactical planning, which is no easy feat when you look at some of the things Garcia has done with Roma this season. He took full advantage of Roma's tired legs, managed to turn some of his opponents' strengths against them, and kept his squad pushing throughout the match to Roma's great frustration.
Winning The Energy Battle
Both clubs were playing their third match in the space of a week, but Napoli visibly had a large edge in their energy level even early in the match. That's in no small part because Napoli's Champions League campaign has them far more used to playing several big matches in rapid succession than Roma are, who didn't even qualify for the Europa league this season.
Between that and the giallorossi's paper-thin squad, Napoli was able to weather the early storm that Roma put up, and then pushed hard and relentlessly as soon as their opponents' energy started to droop. It was a strategy that worked like a charm, and Roma just couldn't keep up with Napoli from late in the first half on as a result.
Making Roma Work Against Themselves
Roma has had arguably the best defense in Italy this season, giving up just eleven goals in the league and none in Coppa Italia play going in to the first leg of this semi-final tie. The second half of the first tie saw Napoli uncover some flaws in that defense, however, and Napoli exploited those flaws to the fullest. One of Roma's hallmarks this season has been their exceptional man marking along the back line, with Daniele De Rossi sweeping ahead of it to pick out runners and keep that man marking from getting overwhelmed.
With De Rossi's legs tired, however, Napoli were able to pick apart that man marking with positional interchanging and clever runs. The first goal was a perfect example of this; Marek Hamsik and Jose Callejon swapped spots, with Callejon moving through the middle and Hamsik coming in from the right. Leandro Castan got caught out too far from goal trying to figure out what Hamsik was doing, and when Callejon ran up in support of Gonzalo Higuain, Mehdi Benatia couldn't figure out who to mark in time to make a difference.
Napoli also exploited Roma's tired legs against their propensity to press, with Hamsik, Jorginho, and Gokhan Inler routinely sucking their midfielders in before passing away to another yellow shirt. That wore Roma down even faster than they would have otherwise, letting Napoli press for their chances early and often.
They also made Roma work against themselves when the visitors had the ball. Gervinho's runs were lethal in the first leg, so conventional wisdom would have suggested that Napoli would try to keep him from running with the ball again. Instead, they let the Ivorian winger run to his heart's content, and instead focused on minimizing the threat of the supporting runs from Mattia Destro and Adem Ljajic, while Faouzi Ghoulam largely kept Gervinho from cutting too far inside, keeping him out wider where his lack of an effective cross meant that his runs provided little threat.
Harried To The Breaking Point
Serie A got a very valuable piece of intel on Roma when Juventus whipped them in January, but it's a lesson that no one had taken advantage of since then: get Roma a little frustrated, and they start making mistakes and digging themselves a hole that they have a hard time coming back out of. Napoli's gameplan was designed to do exactly that, denying them easy possession, keeping them from taking their usual barrage of long shots, and choking off their chances closer to goal.
As the match wore on and Roma put together fewer and fewer good chances, their frustration visibly grew. They started pushing themselves harder and harder, which led to them getting sloppy in their efforts in front of goal. By the end of the match, they had four players in the book and were down a man after Kevin Strootman responded to his booking with sarcasm, which earned him a quick second yellow. By that point, Napoli had put themselves up 5-3 on aggregate, and Strootman's dismissal put an end to Roma's hopes of a comeback.
Because you've slogged through a lot of very serious stuff, here's a reward: goal GIFs!
Jose Callejon is so much fun, isn't he? He slipped Vasilis Torosidis, kept just enough space between himself and Mehdi Benatia to move freely, and latched on to a beautiful cross from Christian Maggio to put Napoli up. Just a thing of beauty.
Callejon and Torosidis again combine to give Napoli a goal, though it was Gonzalo Higuain who headed this one home. Callejon flicked on a corner from the near post (quite a lovely no-look effort, too, glancing it off the top of his well-coiffed head), and Higuain made Torosidis' marking look like a circus show at the far post. That would be the Greek fullback's last action of the match, and his substitution frankly came well too late for Roma.
Unfortunately for Roma, Maicon didn't do much better than Torosidis. Roma were still sorting themselves out after the Brazilian came on for Torosidis, and Dries Mertens turned him completely around before putting through a gorgeous through ball that split Benatia and Leandro Castan for Jorginho to finish off.
What a match. Now we have to wait until May to take on Fiorentina in the Final, and hopefully see Napoli bring a fifth Coppa trophy back to Naples.