BY: Steve Mitchell
After 37 rounds of the Serie A season, the race for the final Champions league qualifying place comes down to the final 90 minutes at the San Paolo on Sunday evening. Having lost the Rome derby last Monday, Lazio need to take at least a point from Sunday’s match to ensure they enter the final preliminary stage of Europe’s premier club competition. A win for Napoli will put them level on points with their visitors but because of a superior head to head record, they would clinch the all-important third spot.
The tension in the run up to the match is stifling, both teams have gone into “ritiro” which basically means an intense training camp to get the players fully focused on the job in hand. The Stadio San Paolo is heading for a sell-out as Napoli fans, who thought their chance of appearing at Europe’s top table next season had disappeared, look to make their home ground as intimidating as possible.
If reports are to be believed, then this game looks set to be coach Rafael Benitez’s last game in charge of I Vesuviani. The Italian press are confidently predicting that the Spaniard will be unveiled as the new man in charge at Real Madrid next week. The 55-year-old will want to give the club’s fanatical fans the perfect leaving gift before returning to were his coaching career started.
His opposite number, Stefano Pioli is a man under pressure after losing the capital derby last week. After the match the tension started to show as the Parma born tactician turned on the Italian TV media and Roma coach Rudi Garcia, the disappointment on his face was palpable. But all is not lost, Lazio still hold all the cards and a draw will be good enough to get them into the Champions League play-offs at the end of August.
Pioli looks set to name an unchanged side from last week’s derby defeat with Miroslav Klose set to lead the attack for what could be his last appearance in a Lazio shirt. Lucas Biglia despite having to leave the field with concussion last Monday, will most likely be preferred to DaniloCataldi in the midfield holding role alongside Marco Parolo. Stefano Mauri who sounded a rallying cry after the derby declaring that “we will get to the Champions League” will be allowed to play a more creative role behind Klose.
Benitez will hope his big guns come out firing on Sunday evening. Striker Gonzalo Higuain has now drawn a blank in his last five games as rumours start to circle as to where he will be playing his football next season. Marek Hamšík should also be in the starting XI for this vital game. So often this season he has been the driving force behind the team and Napoli will hope he can produce his best 90 minutes of the season on Sunday. KalidouKoulibaly could return to the centre of defence after serving his one match suspension in last week’s 3-1 defeat at Juventus.
Our Probable Formations:
Napoli (4-2-3-1) Andújar; Ghoulam, Koulibaly, Albiol, Maggio; Inler, David López; Mertens, Hamšík, Callejón; Higuain
Lazio (4-2-3-1) Marchetti; Basta, de Vrij, Gentiletti, Lulić; Parolo, Biglia; Candreva, Mauri, Felipe Anderson; Klose