Winners and Losers from the Coppa Italia Semi-Finals
It was raining, and whole sides of the stadium were empty, huge sections of multi-coloured seats. Under the cover of the west stand were roughly 3,000 fans, one of them just outside, standing soaked without a shirt. He was leading a chant, arms outstretched and waving.
The sounds were full on TV, even if the rows were not. The peculiar thing about the Coppa Italia is the lack of attendance, but Napoli drew 42,131 people at the San Paolo for their quarter-final against Lazio, and they charged just €5 for family tickets.
The trophy is important. Napoli's Rafa Benitez started with striker Gonzalo Higuain, captain Marek Hamsik and homeboy Lorenzo Insigne in that quarter-final match-up, benched them in a 3-0 loss at Atalanta on the weekend, and opened the first leg of the semi-final against Roma with the trio.
Roma still won, 3-2, and coach Rudi Garcia played Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Gervinho despite the vicinity of the Derby della Capitale.
But there is little respite for Udinese, stuck in 15th in Serie A, and they have a chance to win a major trophy for the first time since 2000 after taking down Fiorentina 2-1 on Tuesday in the competition.
A week from now we shall know the true winners and losers of these ties. Let's examine, though, what is exactly at stake for these four clubs and what they have achieved—or not—thus far.
Udinese Within Reach of the Final
This cup matters to the club in the northeast of Italy. They failed to win a game in the Coppa Italia the past two years. This season, they failed to make the group stage of the Europa League, and Udinese won just once—at Anfield, no less—at that point in the competition the year before.
Losses came to Arsenal, and Braga beat the Friuli on penalties in the playoffs of the Champions League prior to that. They were terrible representatives for Italy.
Here they have beaten Inter and Milan, and if they hold the aggregate lead over Fiorentina, they could play in the Coppa Italia final for the first time since 1922. This is all the more impressive considering their poor form in Serie A: four defeats in five matches and just six goals for Antonio Di Natale.
Look at his stats in the past four campaigns: Di Natale had scored between 26 and 29 goals in total, and this year he threatened to retire.
A crucial goal by Luis Muriel won the game, only his seventh in all. For someone compared to the Brazilian Ronaldo, he has disappointed. But he dribbled and ran determined for the clincher, and it was a reminder as to why he was the Serie A Young Footballer of the Year in 2012.
Another Blooper for Morgan De Sanctis
He shrugged his shoulders and closed his eyes, perhaps knowing he had done it before. Morgan De Sanctis mistimed the ball, earlier in the season against Atalanta, where he tried to stop a free kick, and it slipped right out of his clutches. Roma drew that game, and the goalkeeper put his team in a tough position again.
Not a few minutes into the first half, Higuain skipped past defenders and nudged the ball goalwards. It went right through the hands. It was bad for two reasons: it was nothing new, and it gave Napoli new life. Roma blew a 2-0 lead. Napoli could've left Rome with a tie and away goals, so crucial in this two-legged part of the competition.
Teammate Maicon said in January that the goalkeeper should go to the World Cup, according to Football-Italia.net. And maybe he is right: De Sanctis does have 13 clean sheets in Serie A—the most among his peers—and the lowest goals-against average at 0.52.
Is that him or his defence? He was 30 minutes short of breaking the record for the longest spell without conceding a goal in Serie A history. But those hands are buttery.
A Scorcher from Juan Vargas
The ball was struck with anger, hitting the crossbar down. Juan Vargas hadn't scored a competitive goal for his club the past two seasons, and this was his fifth, the important away goal for Fiorentina.
He is a player with a knack for the spectacular, and his left foot is loaded with power, and the Peruvian had struck a similar shot high and into the net for his country in extra time against Colombia in the 2011 Copa America.
He doesn't get many games anymore, and injuries to Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez allowed him some time. He is part of a deep squad—they could afford to keep the tireless Juan Cuadrado on the bench for this game—and Vargas has made himself useful again. There is still the obligations of the Europa League. Maybe the 30-year-old has more to offer.
Napoli Making Too Many Mistakes
That's six goals allowed for Napoli in two games. Raul Albiol and Anthony Reveillere are not quick enough. Christian Maggio is a liability. They have trouble timing the offside trap. Often the defenders spread across the field, and they leave yawning gaps. Against Roma, they bobbled the ball at the back and surrendered space, looking a lot like a wave receding from the shore.
On this day, Roma's Gervinho sliced through them and outraced them. Not the kind of player to invite.
There is no leadership in defence. It's troubling for Napoli if Benitez, who is largely obsessed with tactics, wants to limit the goals in the return leg next Wednesday. They can score the goals—Higuain is always looming, and Dries Mertens is so mobile and elusive—but the strength of this squad does not hide their shortcomings.
There are four games ahead of them the next two weeks in three different competitions. If the leaking doesn't stop, their season could lose all its water.