Napoli had a hard job ahead of them in Rome for this Coppa Italia tie, and they certainly didn't make it any easier for themselves with their shockingly poor first half. They came back strongly in the second, however, and have to feel good about where they stand for the second leg next week at the San Paolo.
Roma 3 Gervinho 13', 87'; Strootman 32'
Napoli 2 De Sanctis OG 47'; Mertens 70'
Napoli came out punching, pushing hard for an early away goal. Inserting Marek Hamsik back in to the starting lineup made an instant impact, and he, Lorenzo Insigne, and Gonzalo Higuain creating several chances. One in particular stands out, with Hamsik feeding a sprinting Insigne deep in the box, who put in a low cross towards Higuain from the left side of goal. It was well read by old friend Morgan De Sanctis, though, and nothing came of it.
Roma would have the first goal, though, scoring on their first real chance of the match in the 12th minute. The ever-dangerous Francesco Totti fed a sprinting Gervinho, who just managed to get a touch around Pepe Reina and put the ball in the net with a simple finish. The fault of the goal rests squarely on the shoulders of Anthony Reveillere, who let Gervinho by him without so much as a glance in his direction.
The Frenchman had a frankly horrible match, as every Roma chance while he was on the pitch came through the left side of Napoli's defense. Many were surprised that the Algerian wasn't included in the starting lineup after he looked good in his cameo against Atalanta on the weekend, but they wouldn't have to wait long to see him. In the 24th minute, Reveillere went down in the middle of the pitch with an apparent injury, and was quickly subbed off for Ghoulam, who almost immediately stabilized Napoli's defense.
That wouldn't help much on what happened next, though.
In the 32nd minute, Kevin Strootman collected the ball near the center line on the right side of Napoli's defense, drove forward a bit, and unleashed a cannon of a shot that Reina stood no chance against. While the midfield, particularly Gokhan Inler, should have done a better job of closing the Dutchman down, it was an absolutely tremendous shot that, honestly, you can't help but admire a little.
While Napoli made a couple efforts to drag themselves a goal back before the half, including a lung-busting run from Maggio that ended in a penalty appeal, by and large they seemed almost too shell-shocked to get back in to the tie. It was disappointing to see under the circumstances, as fans were hoping to see the club really push to make the final.
Whatever Rafa said at halftime, though, worked, and worked fantastically. Napoli immediately pushed forward hard, and in an attack that saw Roma's box swamped with numbers, Higuain managed to latch on to a cheeky chip from Insigne and pushed it towards goal. Morgan De Sanctis then did Morgan De Sanctis things, which in this case means completely mishandling the ball and pushing it in to his own net for an own goal. After looking completely lost and entirely out of the tie, Napoli were back in it in a hurry.
Both sides pushed for another goal, though both sides also found it hard to find. Roma was restricted to more long-range efforts, but couldn't recreate the magic of Strootman's blast. Napoli focused their efforts closer to goal, but were unable to find that last pass to set someone free on goal.
After Roma bringing on Miralem Pjanic for Radja Nainggolan brought on a five-minute spell that saw Roma constantly threaten Napoli's goal, both sides made further changes. Roma brought on Mattia Destro for Totti up top to give them more of a traditional striker to target, and Rafa sent in Dries Mertens in favor of a visibly flagging Hamsik, hoping that the Belgian's movement and interchange with Insigne and Callejon would unlock Roma's defense.
He did exactly that.
Just six minutes after coming on, Mertens created space for himself and with the tiniest of hip-fakes, managed to fool De Sanctis as to where his shot was going before unleashing it in to the back of the net. It was a wonderful effort from the Belgian, and a continuation of the great form we've seen from him for the last several months.
It was astounding to see Napoli work their way back so strongly. At halftime, they were 2-0 down to a side that was largely outplaying them and had given up just one goal at home all season. By the 75th minute, they had equalized, and outside of a five-minute spell after the 60th minute, they were running absolutely rampant. The reaction was fantastic, and is something that has been largely lacking of late.
After some vague threats by both teams, Rafa decided that his last change should solidify his defense a bit, bringing Valon Behrami on for Gonzalo Higuain for the last five minutes of the match, dropping him and Inler deeper in to midfield, and playing Jorginho ahead of them to feed the attacking tridente of Insigne, Mertens, and Callejon.
Unfortunately, that plan didn't work out very well. Alessandro Florenzi abused Behrami just minutes later and put in a lovely through ball to Gervinho, who left Reina helpless with his finish from a tight angle from Reina's left. Naopli looked for another equalizer, but couldn't quite find it despite several quality efforts before the final whistle.
Napoli did extremely well to recover from an awful first half, and despite being behind going in to the return leg, their two away goals put the Partenopei in a strong position. As long as they can keep Roma to a goal or less next week, they have a good shot at advancing to the final. That might be a tough task for this defense, but it's a far easier challenge to overcome than the halftime scoreline indicated it would be.