Napoli’s convincing victory over Roma is a sign that Rafa Benitez’s team is reaching their potential, says Jeremy Lim
The San Paolo takes no prisoners, particularly one that Diego Maradona invokes a zeal from like a great deity. Napoli rose to the occasion in the Coppa Italia semi-final against Roma, urged on by a rabid crowd. A 3-0 demolition job was just as the hosts’ deserved on Wednesday, victory serving as a fitting tribute to the on-looking Argentine legend, who was barely able to conceal his delight.
Giallorossi Coach Rudi Garcia was thoroughly schooled by Cup king Rafael Benitez on the night, but signs from their first clash in Rome last week had already been ominous. We caught a glimpse of what the real Napoli was capable of then, when they bounced back from a 2-0 deficit to tie proceedings and forever reshape the balance of the encounter. Gervinho ultimately quelled the uprising with the winner as the clock ticked down, but the Partenopei had already laid down the gauntlet ahead of the return leg.
Despite needing only one goal to reach a second Coppa final in two years, Napoli’s nerves showed early on as the weight of the occasion rested on their shoulders. But Roma hesitated to convert early chances in front of goal, and the wily Benitez only saw fit to exploit the visitors’ frailties at the back. Jose Callejon opened the scoring with his team’s first real sight on target, ghosting in to head past former Naples custodian Morgan De Sanctis and sparking wild celebrations from the Vesuviani faithful - little could they have imagined the show had just got on the road.
Stepping fully into stride, Napoli played on with renewed intent and vigour, the like of which few opponents have managed to contain this season. The crowd were not kept waiting to celebrate much longer when new fan favourite Gonzalo Higuain escaped Vasilis Torosidis’ attention to finish from a corner and break Roma’s backs. The stuff of nightmares for Mehdi Benatia’s backline, first at the Olimpico, Higuain again underlined why his outfit had shelled out €37m to sign him the previous summer. Irresistible in attack, the talismanic forward constantly searched out opportunities to add to his tally one minute, while unselfishly laying on chances for his teammates the next.
The subject of heartbreak when Napoli were surreally eliminated in the Champions League group stages, Higuain ensured the only tears he would shed at the end of this match were of joy. By the time Jorginho hammered the final nail into Roma’s coffin, the tide had irreversibly swung Napoli’s way, their tickets back to the Olimpico booked for May - to face Fiorentina in the final. Now factor in the return of influential midfielders Valon Behrami and Marek Hamsik from injury, Dries Mertens’ timely surge into the spotlight as well as the club’s signings in January immediately making their presence felt, and it looks as if Benitez’s troops may well have secured the boost they needed following an indifferent start to 2014.
It must feel back to the drawing board for Garcia, however. So comprehensively outplayed and out-thought, questions will arise whether Roma pack the necessary reserves to reassert themselves this season. The French boss horribly misjudged an already-delicate task of avoiding defeat in Naples, perhaps overreaching with his squad rotation which included the fallacy of thrusting Michel Bastos into defence, but there can be no doubting which side desired victory more over the course of these two semi-final stages.
Napoli are here and now a team on the up. Starting to play with real clout at both ends and reflecting a sense of genuine depth for the first time, the men have done their credentials no harm with their latest performances. Remain in the running for domestic and European silverware like this, and the likes of Higuain and Co. will continue meeting with the approving nods of Maradona.