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Pepe Reina, The Save And A Leak On The Corner Flag Highlight Serie A's Race For Second Place

The fight for second place in Serie A is serious business. Roma and Napoli are not fighting solely for the privilege of finishing behind Juventus, but battling to avoid a Champions League playoff qualifying spot. So bad is the history of Italian teams in the playoff rounds that Italy has, more often than not in recent years, only had two representatives in the group stages of Europe’s premier footballing tournament.

Thus, when Roma and Napoli played one another this weekend, the chance to finish in second was up for grabs.

Napoli won. Sure, they didn’t move into second place, but they closed the gap to two points with eleven games to go. Four points below them, only three points separate Lazio, Atalanta, Inter and Milan in the following pack, while Juve’s slight stumble against Udinese means their lead is only eight points. Now, in the remaining games, Roma and Napoli will enter into a shootout for a silver medal.

The quality between the teams is so fine as to be separated only at an atomic level. As this match proved, the slightest reflex or the fortunate bounce of the ball can determine who takes all of the points. Arguments can be made in favor of each team’s superiority but, on the day, it was the Neapolitans who came away from the capital with three big points. So how did it happen?

For the last five years, Napoli haven’t taken a single point from their matches away at Roma. Furthermore, Roma haven’t dropped any points at the Olimpico so far this season. With Roma already ahead of them in the table, defeat in this game would surely doom Napoli’s chase for second place. 

There were questions over Napoli's focus, their team selection and their motivation. After a calamitous result in the mid-week cup game against Juventus, the furore around Napoli was at fever pitch. Referees were accused of cheating, the team accused of losing their heads. It seemed like Roma had the result in the bag.


The real surprise of the night was in midfield. Everyone knew about the scintillating form of both Dries Mertens and Edin Dzeko, but the recent form of Radja Nainggolan has seen the Belgian deservedly mentioned among the truly elite midfielders of the world. To say he has everything in his locker would be an understatement, but the cigarette-loving sledgehammer can do everything from crunching tackles to thirty yard screamers.

Alongside him was the quintessentially Roman yellow card magnet, Danielle De Rossi. In response, Napoli fielded Marko Rog, a 23-year-old making his first start. But Rog was magnificent, bullying his celebrated peers with ease; twisting, turning and tackling.

As Rog dominated the center of the pitch, Napoli roared into an early lead.

Mertens scored twice, taking his total for the season to 18 goals from 18 starts. The second goal was capped with a note-worthy routine. Visiting Rome, epicenter of European history, Mertens pulled his own historic tribute out of the bag, crawling on all fours to the corner flag to cock a triumphant leg in a celebration which only 90s kids will understand. He says it was also a comment on his love for dogs, which has seen him adopt from the dog-shelters of Napoli.

As discussion-worthy as it was, the best was yet to come.

Anyway, two goals to the good, Napoli seemed to be cruising. After three defeats in the previous four games (across all competitions), Maurizio Sarri had balanced his side perfectly and the team were purring along confidently. His opposite number, Luciano Spalletti, had juggled his formation and it had proved to be disastrous. He tinkered during the game, allowing Napoli to apply more and more pressure as the minutes wore on.

This came to a head in the 89th minute. Rog, tearing through the midfield, almost capped his glorious display with a goal. Denied, Roma snatched the ball and ran the length of the pitch. Egyptian speedster Mohamed Salah hit the post, only for Kevin Strootman to be on hand to turn in the rebound. The game was alive with a few minutes still to play.


And then came the save. Everyone in Italy has been talking about the save through the week. It’s so monumental a moment in the match that it demands capitalization. The Save. The definitive article plus the proper noun. The save against which all others will be judged. It came in the 93rd minute.

After their goal, a Roma side who had huffed and puffed for an hour and a half suddenly looked dangerous. Passes were clicking, combinations opening space. Napoli’s defence, resolute thus far, began to crumble. Diego Perotti shot wide, Salah almost collected a chipped through ball. Roma were hammering on the door and there were seconds left.

The ball fell to Perotti on the edge of the box. The Italian set himself for a shot, aiming for the left corner of Pepe Reina’s goal. The Spaniard shifted his weight, preparing to lunge out and – hopefully – clip the ball around the post. As the ball left the striker’s feet, as Reina planted his toes to dive, the shot deflected, caught on the heel of the turning Kalidou Koulibaly: the slightest of touches, but enough to send the ball careening in another direction.

In that moment, everything changed. Reina, wrong-footed, had to move. Whereas his body was already poised to lunge left, he flung out a right hand. The ball looped high. It was heading, inevitably, tragically, for the far corner.

And Reina’s glove rose. Defying the keeper’s momentum, the glove struck up below the ball, putting just enough on it to change the trajectory. It was still looping towards the top corner. But the touch was enough to tip the ball on to the bar. The stadium gasped.

But the danger wasn’t over. The ball fell back to earth but Reina was ready this time. He stuck out a leg, taking one touch to steady the ball and then using the other foot to clear the goal line. Roma players had been pouring into the box, desperate to feast on the scraps. The ball went behind for a corner.

That was The Save. It was as good as a goal. As important, too. From there, the game fizzled out. The seconds ebbed away, everyone waiting for full time, waiting for another chance to discuss what Reina had just done. As the whistle blew, with three points in the bag, Napoli and Reina had their victory. Roma had played badly and, in truth, didn’t deserve a point. Napoli earned their victory at both ends.

Right now, this match will be remembered for The Save. As the weeks go on, as the points rack up, we might look back on that single moment as the defining moment in Roma or Napoli’s season. With both teams resigned to the fact that second place is their best possible finishing spot, we could be in for many more moments of magic in the weeks to come. For now, though, Reina’s flash of genius has earned its place on the front page.

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