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Napoli won again, maintaining the leadership of Serie A for at least one more week. The Partenopei beat AC Milan 2-1, showing a less shining and sparkling football than usual, due to a courageous and well-trained opponent side.
As claimed by coach Maurizio Sarri, Saturday night at San Paolo Napoli played a slightly atypical game for their standards: For the first time since the beginning of the season, his boys finished with a lower ball possession than their opponents: 45.1% for Napoli, versus a 54.9 % for Milan.
Nevertheless, Milan were the second team this season never to touch the ball into Napoli’s box for the full the first half: Only Benevento had “managed” to do the same so far (source: OPTA statistics). Additionally, Napoli totalized a number of shots and attack attempts perfectly in line with their previous games.
Napoli eventually scored twice: The first goal was the product of a superlative Lorenzo Insigne, and the second was a cadeau by Piotr Zielinski, who had just entered the pitch for Marek Hamsik. Milan scored at 91’ with a nice volley by Alessio Romagnoli, who fixed the score on 2-1.
Napoli’s season has been incredible so far: With 13 matches played, 11 won and 2 tied, the Partenopei have the second best starting record in Serie A history. Only Fabio Capello’s Juventus did better in 2005/06 with 12 wins and 1 loss – but that Juventus was eventually relegated to Serie B due to Calciopoli scandal.
This goes to everyone’s credit, but mostly to coach Sarri, who continues to impart fottball lessons to his players: With him, Napoli learned to keep the focus high by pressuring the opponents, and playing between the lines with fast and short passing.
The results were evident on Saturday, when the Partenopei took the three points against a well-organized team. Milan played with a 3-5-2 module, but Montella switched to a four-man defensive line when pressured, to increase ball possession and block Napoli wings: A good choice, as the Azzurri had often showed to suffer this tactic.
By doing so, the Rossoneri could indeed keep their barycentre higher than Napoli, ensuring equilibrium, a solid circulation between positions, and more presence in their defensive zone. But Here’s where Sarri’s genius came out: Reading this tactic, Napoli was able to balance their efforts, and change the pace only when needed: It is not by chance that, in the last 15 minutes of the first half, Napoli went only for vertical passes, first with Allan Marques, and then with Insigne, who finalized a wonderful long-pass by the Italian “Giorgio” Jorginho for his team’s lead (Knock, know, Ventura…anybody home?) Similarly, Dries Mertens launched Zielinski with another vertical long-pass, which put the Polish in the best position to score the second goal.
Overall, Napoli didn’t play the best game ever. Still, they won as a great team, showing a strong eager to win both the game and the league – though bel gioco, as Arrigo Sacchi would put it, is not something you always get to see when Italian top teams play: check out Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus, or Jose Mourinho’s Inter for reference.
To conclude, even when not shining, Napoli is still like a wonderful Mozart play. It is a movie-show, which doesn’t need a plot to get an academy-award nomination. Question of the day is: Will such well-played games be enough to retain the lead until the end?
As journalist Mario Sconcerti wrote, ‘A Scudetto game took place at San Paolo on Saturday’: Well, let’s knock on wood and keep it up!
…and please, Napoli, make sure you wear a different outfit next time: black and white is for Old Ladies, you know!