Why Roma vs. Napoli Could Be the Defining Game of the Serie a Season

Colin O'BrienContributor IOctober 14, 2013

ROME, ITALY- OCTOBER 04:  Francesco Totti of AS Roma in action with a back-hell during the Serie A match between AS Roma and SSC Napoli at Olimpico Stadium on October 4, 2009 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

The Serie A table makes for some unlikely reading these days. Gone is the traditional northern dominance that so characterised Italy's top flight in the past. For now at least, the south has risen, which is why the weekend's game between leaders Roma and second-placed Napoli is such a fascinating prospect. 

Both have started the season extremely well despite losing key players and having to adapt to new managers. And both look certain to be challenging for one of Serie A's three Champions League places. But are either good enough to take the fight to Juventus? The winner at the Stadio Olimpico will have a strong case. 

It's early days yet, but so impressive have both the Giallorossi and the Partenopei been that it is now impossible to say for sure that they can't challenge for a title.

For Napoli, it's hardly surprising. Aurelio De Laurentiis has been building steadily for years at the San Paolo, and in recent seasons the Azzurri never seemed far off. Now with a more balanced squad and with Rafa Benitez at the helm, they look the complete package. 

Roma's bright start has been a little more of a shock. It's been a difficult few years for the Romans, and while the new American ownership has been working hard to turn Roma into a successful—and profitable—force in Italian and European football following years of decline under Rosella Sensi, the results have lagged far behind the ambition. 

At least until Rudi Garcia showed up. The Frenchman has had an immediate impact, leading the club to seven straight wins. Not only is that a club record, it's an achievement so rare that history suggests fans are right to start dreaming of league glory. 

Of the teams who managed to win seven in a row at the beginning of a season—Juventus in 1930, 1985 and 2005; Milan in 1954 and 1992; Inter in 1966—only Helenio Herrera's great Nerazzurri side failed to win the league. They did, however, finish second and as runners-up in the European Cup.

Roma don't have European football to contemplate, but if you'd asked them at the start of the season, they'd have happily emulated that Inter side of '66. Second place and Champions League football for 2014 would constitute a hugely successful season for Roma as they look to re-establish themselves among the European elite. 

Rightly or wrongly, Romanisti and commentators everywhere are now daring to expect more from Garcia's men. That's the nature of the sport. That European spot had seemed an unlikely dream after two disappointing seasons—but now it's the least it will take to satisfy expectations. 

Napoli are the acid test. If Garcia can best Benitez, anything's possible. The Spaniard has an excellent team at his disposal in Naples, and they remain the most obvious threat to Antonio Conte's Juve. But with the league and European football to contend with, there is a danger that the Azzurri might be over-stretched later in the campaign. Juventus have a bigger, better squad, and Roma have only one target for the season. Benitez can ill-afford to drop points at this stage to a rival.

Should the visitors claim a win at the Olimpico, they'll be in the driving seat for the championship too. Victories don't come easy in the Italian capital—a scalp there would be a massive confidence boost ahead of their trip to Turin to face Juve in November. 

For their part, Juve must travel to Florence and face Vincenzo Montella's attractive and combative Fiorentina. A favourable result is far from a sure thing. Victory at the Olimpico, then, could see either Roma or Napoli steal an early march on the defending champions. 

It's incredible how much has changed in Rome. After a season to forget, the first few games on Roma's streak were dismissed—or at least downplayed—because they came against easy opposition. But convincing wins against Lazio in the derby and Inter away from home confirmed the Lupi as more than flat-track bullies. If they can win—or at least draw—against Napoli, they'll be confirmed as contenders. And the Romanisti will be right to dream.