The trouble with this time of the year is that it is difficult to truly assess teams that have had an inspired start to the season. Often, the fixture list, or form, has been kind, and the league table can be misleading - no one, for example, seriously expects Southampton to challenge for the Premier League, even though they are just two points off first place.
This was certainly true for three Italian teams. Roma, Napoli and Inter Milan are all considered relative giants of the Italian game, all having won Serie A titles in the past and more recently, been up and around the upper end of the table. All three also changed managers over the summer, marking an intriguing new era in Italian football - and consequently, all three have started the new season strongly.
However, it's still not easy to judge how effective Walter Mazzari, Rudi Garcia and Rafa Benitez have been at their new clubs. All three were achieving results better than their predecessors, but was this a case of new season overachieving, or actual, wholesale improvement?
In the case of Mazzari, it's accepted that his job at Inter is probably the toughest of all the new managers. Not only is the original squad woefully unbalanced, he had the least transfer funds available. Impressive wins against Sassuolo (7-0) and Fiorentina (2-1) have caught the eye, but their capitulation to Roma just before the international break showed there's much work to do -- understandably, considering he was taken them after a ninth placed finish last season.
However, there are much greater expectations on Garcia and Benitez. In the case of the former, last year represented a nadir for the notoriously proud Roma fans, who had to endure, in their eyes, the greatest disgrace imaginable - defeat to arch rivals Lazio in the Coppa Italia final, and the subsequent humilation. Garcia not only had to win over supporters dubious of the fact he was the first Frenchman to coach in Italy, and didn't speak Italian, but restore much of the pride lost in the James Pallotta era. After an inspired start, talk of a title challenge is still premature - but illustrates the lofty expectations in Rome.
Benitez, meanwhile, arrived at a club that was on the fringes of a proper title challenge, but somewhat mired in the "second-best" mentality of Mazzari. Mazzari's suggestion of second place being "Napoli's scudetto" summed up the mood - despite pushing Juventus quite a distance last season, Napoli never felt quite comfortable with their new status as one of Italy's top clubs. Benitez is intended as the man to help them take the next step. The talk is no longer on whether Napoli can challenge for the title; instead, the expectation is that they will, and sometime in the future, win it.
Few, though, would have expected him and Garcia to have made such fine starts. Their clash on Friday night was first v second, with just one loss separating the two, and so represented a fine opportunity to assert either side's credentials. In short, Roma passed with flying colours; Napoli, meanwhile, less so.
On paper, the clash in systems was mildly interesting, with Benitez's rigid 4-2-3-1 formation, and wide players driving from outside to in, contrasting neatly with Garcia's false nine setup, which encourages Francesco Totti to shift between the lines and drag defenders upfield, creating space in behind for Alessandro Florenzi and Gervinho. In essence, the wide players for either side were performing similar roles - but because Roma's 4-3-3 allows the midfield trio to slide out across to the flanks to protect the full-backs, Gervinho and Florenzi consequently have more freedom to stay higher up the pitch, able to wait in positions to receive the ball at counter-attacks.
Gervinho, here deployed on the left rather than the right, is a frequent target for these transitions, and most noticeably against Inter Milan, has been outstanding in driving Roma attacks upfield. He also links up nicely with Miralem Pjanic, the most creative of the midfield trio, and the one that most frequently moves forward from deep positions to help connect the side. Here, he frequently found space to either side and in between Napoli's deep-lying holding midfielders, Gökhan İnler and Valon Behrami, and focused a high proportion of his passes down Roma's right flank.
That, in turn, was useful for Roma's other area of strength: the overlapping full-backs. Benitez asks his side to play very narrowly in the defensive phase, and the Arsenal match - another one of their litmus tests - showed how they can be vulnerable to surging, overlapping runs from opposition defenders, with Bacary Sagna enjoying great freedom down that side in the Champions League tie.
Here, it was Maicon, who pushed past his nominal marker Lorenzo Insigne to provide an extra attacking threat in the final third. Napoli's left side of defence hasn't ever felt particularly secure under the Benitez reign, and that feeling was exaggerated by the absence of Juan Zuniga, with Giandomenico Mesto struggling to deal with the combined threat of Maicon and Florenzi in his zone - he attempted to deal with it by driving forward himself, hoping to push Maicon back towards goal: but by that point Napoli were already chasing the game.
There's certainly an argument to say that Roma's goals went against the run of play, but Napoli's two litmus tests this season (Arsenal and this game) have seen them defend well enough as a unit, keeping a solid, compact 4-4-2 shape out of possession, but individually, there doesn't seem to be an understanding between individual players. When there are overloads in wide areas, for example, the wingers seem uncertain about whether to track an overlapping full-back all the way, or to leave him to their own full-back.
By contrast, Roma have felt fluid, cohesive and flexible throughout the campaign: able to dominate possession, counter-attack rapidly and soak up waves of opposition attacks - that, in particular, proved useful in the dying stages of this match, helping Roma hold out for a 2-0 win. They're playing a more complete brand of football than Napoli this season, and that showed in this top of the table clash.