Napoli outplayed AS Roma for much of the match in this crucial late-season Derby del Sole, but there is no joy in Naples after the final whistle. A late goal saw Roma come out 1-0 winners, and now the partenopei have been thrown into full-bore desperation mode as the end of the season approaches -- while arch-rivals Juventus celebrate winning Serie A yet again.
The match nearly got off to a disastrous start when Mo Salah lashed a shot just wide in the first minute, but Napoli's defense quickly asserted themselves after that scare and took control of the match. Kalidou Koulibaly in particular impressed, stopping Diego Perotti and Salah cold on several occasions.
That defensive strength allowed Napoli's midfield and attack to spend plenty of time trying to assert their will on the game -- albeit to mixed effectiveness. Many of their early efforts were wasted by sloppy passing, and even once they steadied things out later in the first half, they were often a beat off-tempo with one another. In fact, two of Napoli's best chances of the half -- an early Gonzalo Higuain shot and a Jose Callejon run behind the defense that saw him snap the back of the net -- were both flagged offside by slim margins. Their other quality chance came when Jorginho sent in a jaw-dropping through-ball for Higuain, but Pipita could get no lift on his chance, making it far too easy for Wojciech Szczesny to make the save.
Unfortunately for everyone watching the match, the game's referee decided that he had to impart his mark on the day. Daniele Orsato is a name that makes fans of pretty much every team in Serie A cringe, and the overly-confrontational, often-wrong ref was in "fine" form again on Monday. Napoli suffered from his decisions several times in the first half, including one head-scratching moment when he carded Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam for two separate fouls in a play, despite Koulibaly making no contact on the Roma player he supposedly fouled, and Ghoulam making marginal contact at best, and certainly not enough to send Salah dramatically sprawling and rolling as he did.
Napoli were handed one big advantage in the first half, though -- Roma were forced to take defender Kostas Manolas out in the 21st minute with an apparent eye injury, following some minutes after a foul from Higuain. That was followed up by Alessandro Florenzi limping off at halftime holding his thigh and having to be replaced by Maicon, leaving the giallorossi with just one substitute to use in the second half to adjust their team, while Napoli held all three.
Napoli used that advantage to bring on Lorenzo Insigne and David Lopez for Dries Mertens and Allan, bringing on fresh legs for two of the more battered and worn players in the side. That energy helped bring a spark of life into the Napoli side late in the match, which lead to an inspiring chance in the closing minutes that almost saw Marek Hamsik score the winner -- only for Antonio Rüdiger to make a last-second tackle to knock the ball away from him just before he could get his shot away. It was an incredible defensive play, and it left Napoli fans and players alike wondering just what it would take to get a goal.
Unfortunately, that question would never get an answer -- and in fact it would be lost in the anguished screams of Napoli fans around the world as just a few short minutes later, Radja Nainggolan hammered home a winner for Roma. Mo Salah somehow poked a ball through five Napoli defenders to the Belgian midfielder at the top of the box, and one drilled shot to the low corner later, and Roma were up 1-0.
Napoli pushed hard in stoppage time, but it was too little, too late. Roma won the match, Napoli's lead in second place fell to two little points -- and Juventus officially secured their fifth straight Serie A title. Everything unraveled in that horrible moment, and the season now is at risk of coming apart at the seams. This was the nightmare scenario. Now Napoli have to find a way to wake up and pull some measure of joy from the rest of the season by winning their last three matches. Based on recent form, that might be easier said than done.
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Allan (Lopez 79'), Jorginho (Gabbiadini 90'), Hamsik; Callejon, Higuain, Mertens (Insigne 75')
AS Roma: Szczesny; Florenzi (Maicon 46'), Manolas (Zukanovic 21'), Rudiger, Digne; Pjanic, Nainggolan, Keita; Salah, Perotti, El Shaarawy (Totti 81')
Goal: Nainggolan (89')