Three matches. Two points. That's all the time left in the Serie A season, and all the ever-thinning cushion that Napoli hold over AS Roma in the battle for second place. The capital club has slowly hacked away at Napoli's once-commanding lead over the last two months, and now the partenopei have no room left to maneuver. As of right now, they still control second place in the league, but even one mistake could see them losing their grip on that crucial guaranteed ticket to the Champions League group stage.
With so little time left and so little room to maneuver, what do Napoli have to do to make sure they meet their goals for the season? What exactly do things look like between now and the final whistle of the season on May 15th?
What Napoli must do
Win out. Period. End of story.
Perhaps that's a little bit simplistic and obvious, but it's the only way that Napoli can guarantee they finish second. They must beat Atalanta, Torino, and Frosinone in order to keep Roma out of the equation for second place. Do that, and it doesn't matter how well the giallorossi play down the final stretch -- that two point gap will still be there, and Napoli will be playing Champions League football.
We could go on about changes to tactics, rotations, and blah blah blah, but it really all boils down to the fact that Napoli have to win their last three matches or they risk getting caught. It wouldn't even take a loss -- even a draw is unacceptable, because if Roma win out, they'd end the season even on points and they hold a head-to-head tiebreaker because of Monday's loss and the 0-0 draw at the San Paolo earlier in the season. That would kick Napoli into third place and the Champions League playoff qualifier, and we all know that's no guarantee of advancement.
Of course, if Roma drop points over the next three games, it gives Napoli breathing room. But let's not assume they will, because fate is a fickle mistress like that. Besides, if Napoli win out, it won't matter.
The factors at play
Napoli have two big things working against them: Roma's excellent form, and their own dreadful road form.
Roma are on a 14 match unbeaten run, one better than the best such streak Napoli have managed this season. They haven't always played at their highest level in that time -- heck, goal aside, Napoli outplayed them on Monday -- but they've consistently found ways to get the result they need in a given match. There's no guarantee that form continues, but there's also no guarantee that it won't.
As for Napoli, their recent record away from the San Paolo is just bad. They've lost three straight matches on the road, and failed to even score in their last two. With no room for error and the trickiest of their remaining matches being on the road -- against Torino -- that could wind up spelling disaster for Napoli.
There is one big factor working in their favor, though -- Roma's remaining schedule is much tougher than their own. They're at home just once, and that against Chievo Verona, who have been a shocking competent and even good team this season. Their other two matches are away from the Stadio Olimpico -- and while Roma have won five of their last six away from home, winning matches under pressure in hostile territory is always harder than winning them on home soil. They have to face Genoa and AC Milan on the road -- and Genoa have won five straight home matches, while Milan will be eager to ruin Roma's dreams if given the opportunity.
What it means
Napoli still control their own destiny and actually have a very good chance of finishing second despite their rather frightening downturn at the end of the season. There's still no room for error, though, and no Napoli fan is going to rest easy until the season is done. This is going to go down to the wire, and it's not going to be enjoyable unless things break heavily in Napoli's favor.
Hang on. It's going to be a wild ride. Let's just hope it winds up as the good kind of wild.