It took a late Gervinho goal to give AS Roma the upper-hand in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final tie against Napoli. The Romans were two goals up at the interval despite Napoli playing quite well themselves in the first half. It could well have been this perceived sense of injustice that provided the impetus for Rafa Benitez’s side to rally from two goals down.
Both sides, arguably, played their best teams with Miralem Pjanic being the only absentee. It was Gervinho who scored the winner and the Ivorian also bagged the opener. The play leading up to the goal was typical Roma under Rudi Garcia; short pass into Totti, who came deep to receive the ball, and a perfectly weighted ball behind the defense to Gervinho who dinked the ball over Pepe Reina before poking home.
If Roma’s first was intricate in it’s conception then their second was a lot more forceful and brutish. Kevin Strootman picked up the ball in midfield before running at the away defense – not one Napoli player close to the Dutchman to apply pressure – before unleashing a powerful strike right into the top corner of Reina’s goal. A stunning goal nonetheless, and one which had the Roma fans up on their feet as their side doubled their lead.
Napoli were shellshocked, their heads down and shoulders slouched. Benitez had the unenviable task of having to lift the spirits of his side dampened by an efficient Roma on a wet night in the capital.
A minute into the second half, they got that bit of luck that their play had generally deserved. Lorenzo Insigne sent Higuain in behind the Roma defense, the Argentine with clever movement managed to find space on the edge of the penalty area. The forward tried to pull the ball back for a teammate but Mehdi Benatia managed to deflect the ball towards Morgan De Sanctis. The Italian international somehow managed to allow the ball through his gloves for it to nestle into the far corner of the goal, when it should have been a routine save, to give the Azzurri – who were actually sporting the bright yellow away kits instead of the traditional sky blue – a lifeline.
Even more disappointing for Roma was that it was the first goal they’ve conceded at the Olimpico in over nine hours of football. Napoli now had the wind beneath their sails, but couldn’t find a way through. Subsitute Faouzi Ghoulam’s powerful free kick was blocked by De Sanctis, then Insigne was denied by a De Sanctis eager to undo his error on the first goal. Roma replied with Adem Ljajic hitting the side netting as the game flew at an electrifying pace between both ends of the pitch.
Ultimately it was another subsitute that brought Napoli level. Dries Mertens entered the pitch four minutes past the hour mark and it took him only five minutes to make an impact. In possession of the ball in the middle of the park, Mertens played a a wall pass with Higuain who, not for the first time was a split second ahead of the in-form Morrocan Benatia in this match. Mertens then skipped past Leandro Castan before smashing the ball down the center of the goal. Once more, questions will be asked of De Sanctis’s goalkeeping.
The cameras focused on a controlled but vindictive look on the face of Napoli’s patron Aurelio De Laurentiis as his beloved Napoli were level against a Roma side that had dominated the champions Juventus, albeit an understrength one, in the previous round.
But the scoring wasn’t over, it rarely is when Rudi Garcia and Roma are involved. 3 minutes from the end, Roma managed to string one last passage of play, one last move that was like a dagger through the heart of Napoli’s defense. It started scrappily, when Leandro Castan’s challenged became a brilliant ball from defense to Alessandro Florenzi in space between the lines.
The Italian international flicked it instinctively to Mattia Destro, who returned it back to Florenzi to play a slide rule pass to Gervinho who finished expertly at Reina’s near post for Roma to take the lead in the tie which could prove useful when the sides face off at the San Paolo in the return leg next week.
In many ways, this match was typical Roma. Brilliant, entertaining and at times suicidal. But what Garcia has brought to this iteration of the Giallorossi is a coinage by Iain Dowie of all people – bouncebackability. Roma sides of the past would’ve capitulated spectacularly after losing their two goal cushion. Indeed, equally entertaining Roma sides under Spalletti would have seen their season completely crushed after the beating they suffered last month at the hands of Juventus. Garcia’s side not only bounced back in the next match but dumped Juve out of the cup a few weeks later.
As for Napoli, they won’t be too disappointed with the result or the performance. They went toe to toe with a great Roma side and have two important away goals to take back home. With the tie finely poised, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will qualify for the final in May, what is a certainty is that we are in for an entertaining return leg next week.