Once again, an ineffective performance from Napoli was bailed out by late heroics. This time, Jose Callejon was the man of the hour, and Napoli were able to inch closer in their challenge to take second place in Serie A away from Roma.
Napoli 1 Callejon 81'
A start that saw Napoli edge things early was put even more in Napoli's favor thanks to an early injury. Kevin Strootman, who'd gone out of the Netherlands' midweek friendly with injury but was deemed fit to start, went down clutching that same knee in obvious pain in the eighth minute. He'd try to solider on once he got back on his feet, but was obviously not moving well and collapsed in pain just a few minutes later, forcing an early substitution for the visitors, who inserted Rodrigo Taddei in to an already ramshackle lineup.
Unfortunately, where Napoli should have pressed their advantage hard, they instead... well, didn't do that. Or much of anything effective for most of the half. The whole half was pretty ugly for both sides, though Roma saw the better chances and Napoli's midfield seemed to give the ball away more often. That played right in to Roma's tactic of the day to counter hard and fast when given the opportunity, and Napoli gave them plenty of opportunity. Fortunately, their end product in the final third was lacking, with Gervinho's finishing touch appearing to not have arrived at the stadium and everyone else looking to pass instead of shoot.
Roma did put the ball in the back of the net, with Mehdi Benatia flicking a lovely header past Pepe Reina off a free kick, but it was (correctly) waved off for offsides. Roma's only other good opportunity of the half saw Gervinho race through Napoli's defense, only to put his shot straight at Reina from point-blank range. Napoli's best chance didn't come until almost the end of the half, with Dries Mertens cutting in from the left and unleashing a curler that old friend Morgan De Sanctis only just palmed away from goal.
The most disheartening thing for Napoli in the first half was the complete lack of a midfield presence. We've gotten all too used to seeing the midfield flail around without Jorginho these past two months, but today it was even worse than normal. Gokhan Inler and Blerim Dzemaili may as well have not been on the pitch for all the good they did, with both players continually turning the ball over with bad touch after bad touch, and too frequently just standing there looking surprised when they do instead of fighting to get the ball back. Their ineptitude on the day starved Marek Hamsik of decent service, but unfortunately when he was able to get on the ball, the Slovakian had a hard time being effective himself.
The second half saw much more aggression from Napoli, but not much more effect until late on. The paretnopei started bypassing the midfield pivot in their buildup, instead leaning more on the fullbacks and wingers, which seemed to throw Roma somewhat off-balance. The end product was still lacking, however, as poor finishing and final third passing let the hosts down on several occasions.
Fortunately, Roma didn't have any better luck in those areas, with several attacks breaking down at the feet of Gervinho or Michel Bastos. Fatigue seemed to slowly get the better of Roma as the match wore on, to which Rafa responded by bringing off Marek Hamsik and inserting the boundless energy of Lorenzo Insigne with orders to harry the back line, which would prove invaluable down the stretch.
Just after the 80th minute, a bad giveaway by Radja Nainggolan wound up at Insigne's feet, and the break was on. Blue shirts flooded forward, and after a bizarre exchange of turnovers, the ball found Faouzi Ghoulam rushing up the left wing. Ghoulam gathered the ball, advanced, and then set and fired in a gorgeous cross to the far post, where Jose Callejon's head was waiting. The header pinged in off the bar and past a diving Morgan De Sanctis to settle in to the back of the net and give Napoli a much needed lead.
That would see out the rest of the match. Roma would threaten, but couldn't put another dangerous shot on-frame. A lot of Napoli's ability to resist that late pressure can be chalked up to Raul Albiol and Federico Fernandez, who both played very well on a whole to help Reina keep Roma off the scoresheet.
While Roma still have a game in hand, their roster is in rough shape, even rougher if Strootman misses any kind of significant time. Closing the gap to just three points (though effectively four with their superior goal differential) could be vital, especially with the stretch run fast approaching. With Roma holding a game in hand and Napoli facing a tough run of matches coming up, including tilts against Fiorentina and Juventus, they partenopei will have to be fully on top of their game to take advantage and mount a proper challenge for second place.
On a somewhat conflicted note, Napoli's win effectively ended any hope Roma had left of challenging Juventus for the Scudetto. While it would have been nice for Juve to feel some pressure, it's always kind of fun to crush hopes and dreams.