Feature Photo: Reuters / Ciro De Luca
If that was supposed to be a trial of fire for Napoli and their Scudetto ambitions, Maurizio Sarri and his boys passed it with honors. The Partenopei demolished Lazio 4-1 in their San Paolo Stadium in the Fuorigrotta neighborhood, displaying, on top of their usual tip top athletic condition, also a rock-solid team spirit – as evidenced by the Azzurri not losing a single chance to make their thoughts go to unfortunate teammate Faouzi Ghoulam.
Napoli’s number 31 left back will miss the rest of the season due to a new injury to his knee. But Sarri’s band didn’t seem to feel his absence, at least on the pitch, where they turned the match in their favor despite a shocking start which saw Lazio putting their head ahead after just three minutes.
When luck is also on your side, with Napoli equalizing right in their opponents’ best moment, and then gaining the lead thanks to two fortunate deflections, you have all the ingredients to make the battle for the Italian title a thrilling one until the end – despite pressure put on the Azzurri by Juventus after beating Fiorentina on Friday night.
On the other hand, Simone Inzaghi needed a reaction from his Lazio after two losses in a row, and now has a few reasons for concern – looking at how his Biancocelesti vanished from the pitch in the second half. It ended 1-4, just like in the first leg match in October, when the Eagles had also taken an early lead with Stephen De Vrij before being trampled by Napoli’s comeback.
The eleven men from the home team all stepped foot on the pitch of San Paolo wearing a number 31 jersey, to wish good luck to Faouzi Ghoulam. Homages to the Algerian defender continued, as his teammates celebrated at least two of their goals last night miming a 31 number in front of cameras.
It had already happened in Champions League, with Lorenzo Insigne waving the jersey of Arkadiusz Milik – another fellow Neapolitan victim of a horrific injury – to celebrate a goal against Feyenoord. It showed how important it is for a team to maintain comradeship and a strong bond, right in a moment in which Lazio’s coach Inzaghi was leaving Felipe Anderson on the bench after almost having had a fight with him earlier in the week.
Lorenzo Tonelli was the new note in Maurizio Sarri’s usual arrangement, the Tuscanian center back replacing injured Raul Albiol and Vlad Chiriches, to make his seasonal debut from the start. Tonelli didn’t have much time to feel the emotion, as he was called to stop an offence by Ciro Immobile after just two minutes.
However, he was part of the collective daydreaming that Napoli’s defense found themselves in one minute later, when a cross from the right flank by Immobile was lightly touched by De Vrij, and put past Juan Manuel Reina for the Eagles’ 0-1.
The Partenopei didn’t lose their head after going down, defending with order against a charging Lazio led by Sergej Milinkovic Savic, but failed to pose any threat to the opponent goal defended by Thomas Strakosha for the full first half.
At the 37th minute, the Serbian midfielder created panic among Napoli back line after Immobile had served him from the left, believing in a ball that seemed lost already. Four minutes later, Reina had to exit to anticipate Immobile again, with Lazio legitimating their lead up to that point.
That is when the inertia of the match suddenly turned, with Jorginho serving a razor-edge lob pass on which the Biancocelesti defenders failed to put José Callejon in offside. The Spaniard tamed the ball, and gently put it past Strakosha to give his side an unexpected equaliser.
Napoli then went for the break with one man less, their coach Maurizio Sarri – who was sent off by referee Luca Banti for protesting too vehemently. He was asking a second yellow card for already-booked Milinkovic Savic. But even from the stands, Sarri was able to call for a substitution that later had a decisive impact on the match: With Marek Hamsik forced to abandon the battle due to a back injury, he sent in Piotr Zielinski.
That the second half was going to follow a different script, it became clear very soon, as Lorenzo Insigne produced a curl shot that scared to death the Biancocelesti supporters, only to miss the target by a few inches. Two minutes later, Stefan Radu somehow managed to parry back a new shot by Callejon, before Insigne could miss the tap in from a favorable position.
But Lorenzo Il Magnifico was feeling it by now, and he theatrically asked the San Paolo fans for more support – which promptly came, together with the episode that changed the match, just two minutes later. José Callejon progressed from the right side, and crossed in a ball that defender Wallace pushed into his own goal before Insigne could even reach for it.
Then, in the 55th minute, with Lazio in a confused state, left back Mario Rui attempted a long-range shot that casually found Piotr Zielinksi on its trajectory. The Pole midfielder’s deviation put Strakosha out of cause again, bringing Napoli on 3-1 in the space of a few minutes.
Inzaghi tried to raise his troops’ morale with a double change, sending in Felipe Caicedo and Jordan Lukaku, but the Partenopei were playing sul velluto by now (“playing on velvet,” as you say in Italy when you are easily controlling a match). A missile by Zielinski called Strakosha to action again, then the Polish substitute dazed the Biancocelesti defenders to serve a pass which a soft touch by Dries Mertens converted into Napoli’s poker.
From then on, it was just melina – with the Azzurri recurring to passing game, and increasing their ball possession up to 66%, each touch accompanied by enthusiastic “olé” chants from the stands. At full time, Insigne and his teammates went to thank their supporters under the A Stands, joining them as they sang Un giorno all’improvviso mi innamorai di te (“One day I suddenly fell in love with you,” the Partenopei fans’ current trend chant), and waving once again Ghoulam’s shirt.
The race for Scudetto is well alive – and it couldn’t be more exciting!
February 10, 2018 – Serie A 2017-18 Round 24
SCORERS: 3′ De Vrij 3′ (L), 44′ Callejon N), 53′ Wallace (L, o.g.), 55′ Zielinski (N), 73′ Mertens (N)
|NAPOLI (4-3-3): Reina; Hysaj, Tonelli, Koulibaly, Mario Rui; Allan (82′ Rog), Jorginho, Hamsik (46′ Zielinski); Callejon (84′ Maggio), Mertens, Insigne (Rafael, Sepe, Albiol, Diawara, Ounas, Machach) Coach: Sarri|
|LAZIO (3-5-1-1): Strakosha; Wallace, De Vrij, Radu; Marusic, Parolo, Lucas Leiva (68′ Nani), Milinkovic, Lulic (61′ Lukaku); Luis Alberto (61′ Caicedo), Immobile (Guerrieri, Vargic, Patric, Bastos, Caceres, Luiz Felipe, Murgia, Basta) Coach: Inzaghi|
REFEREE: Mr. Banti from Livorno
NOTES: Attendance: 40000; Yellow cards: Lucas Leiva, Milinkovic Savic, De Vrij (L); Red Card: Sarri (N)