In-form Edin Dzeko embodies new-look Roma as Napoli test arrives
Almost year ago to the day, Edin Dzeko travelled to Naples with a reputation to rebuild. The Bosnian striker had begun to find his feet in Serie A with a the odd goal against the likes of Crotone, Sampdoria and Frank De Boer's disastrous Inter Milan, but the stench of his truly rank first year at Roma was hard to wash off.
Two goals and a huge 3-1 win over Napoli later and fans started to believe that maybe the Premier League and Bundesliga winner really wasn't the sightless Edin Cieco (a bumbling figure of fun), but a class striker on his way back to his best.
A mere 364 days later and the "Bosnian Diamond" awaits the visit of Napoli a completely different player. Last season's club record total of 39 goals in all club competitions, including a Capocannoniere-winning 29 league strikes, has been followed up his best ever start to a season -- seven goals in six league starts, plus an assist -- despite having, by his own admission, struggled to adapt to both the style of play employed by his new coach Eusebio Di Francesco and the loss of strike partner Mohamed Salah to Liverpool this summer.
Last season's incredible rebirth saw Dzeko hold off another attacking revelation, Dries Mertens, for the top scorer award. However, the Belgian has started the season in even better form than Dzeko, also scoring eight times in all competitions but adding three assists too, and has had a slightly better 2017 with 24 goals, one more than Dzeko having played a game more.
On Saturday night, the two face off at the Stadio Olimpico in a match that will test Napoli's Scudetto credentials and offer an idea of just how far Di Francesco's new-look Roma can go.
Over the last few seasons this match has been key for qualification to the Champions League, as Juve carried out their own private title charges and the rest scrabbled for the one remaining automatic place in Europe's top competition.
Roma pipped Napoli to second place in the final seconds of last season, thanks to a dramatic Diego Perotti volley that also salvaged Francesco Totti's emotional leaving do, while the previous campaign Luciano Spalletti couldn't quite undo the damage wreaked by the end of the Rudi Garcia era, guiding Roma to third, just two points behind Napoli.
The matches have been entertaining affairs too: February's clash at the Olimpico was pulsating and saw a devastating Mertens -- who had been converted from a winger into one of Europe's most clinical strikers after that defeat to Roma in October -- put the dominant away side two goals ahead, only for them to almost collapse in the face of a rambunctious Roma fightback in the final minutes.
Kevin Strootman pulled a goal back with a minute left and in the end only an incredible save from Pepe Reina, twisting mid-flight to stop Perotti's heavily deflected stoppage time shot, kept the Giallorossi from grabbing a last-ditch, and thoroughly undeserved, draw.
In the end it didn't matter, in the same way that Radja Nainggolan's thumping last-minute winner at the Olimpico the previous year didn't stop Napoli claiming the best-of-the-rest crown.
Napoli come to Rome looking to make a definitive Scudetto statement, and show that the defensive lapses that have cost them previously are a thing of the past. Roma, despite having an on-fire striker up top, need to show that, as well as being able to hold off Napoli's irresistible front three, they have the attacking wherewithal to put the Azzurri on the back foot.
In all three of their matches against big opposition, Roma have struggled to create clear cut chances -- they peppered the woodwork against Inter but those efforts were from distance, while they managed just one shot on target against Atletico Madrid and only made the breakthrough at AC Milan thanks to a wicked deflection that took Dzeko's opener past a baffled Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Meanwhile Napoli's most important win so far, 4-1 at Lazio, came after the Biancoceleste lost two of their starting back three to injury mid-match, having taken a deserved first half lead. Four of Napoli's other six wins have come against the bottom seven, so they feel like they have a point to prove.
At the other end, Di Francesco's team have improved tremendously despite the sale of Antonio Rudiger to Chelsea and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny moving to Juventus. The Poland international's replacement Alisson has kept five clean sheets in all competitions this season -- it took them until December to reach that figure last year -- and has let in four league goals, half the number Szczesny saw fly him by at the same stage of the last campaign.
Roma have gone from being a flamboyant, goal-heavy outfit in a similar vein to Napoli to a well-drilled, more solid but less entertaining team to watch. A bit of glitz might have been lost, but it's been replaced with grit, and no-one embodies that shift more than Dzeko.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley