Feature Photo: Getty Images
Napoli has a new hero, and his name is Kalidou Koulibaly. With just one minute to go, silence fell over the Allianz Stadium as the Senegalese center back pushed the ball past Gianluigi Buffon to give the Azzurri their first win in Turin in 10 years, disrupting Massimiliano Allegri’s perfect plan. Napoli closed the distance, the gap with Juventus now reduced to one point only, with four matches to go. The battle for the title is still on, and what an exciting one is going to be!
Massimiliano Allegri had said it, before the match: “This game is decisive for Napoli, not for ourselves.” The Partenopei were expected to be on the attacking side, which they did, and Juventus coach’s clear idea was to control them and make the partitissima end in a soap bubble. Or maybe wait, and hit at the right time like a venomous snake, just like the Bianconeri had done back in December at San Paolo Stadium.
Allegri’s spider web indeed worked well for 89 minutes of a tedious game, which calcio spettacolo lovers would have had no trouble to forget. But then, that crazed variable that makes football so unpredictable took the form of Koulibaly and his mighty header, and awarded Napoli the decisive goal out of nowhere.
Because yes, the Partenopei had been in control of the attacking operations from the very beginning, but it’s not like Buffon had to do any extra work to keep his sheet clean until the fatal last minute – despite coach Maurizio Sarri being able to count on all his best men for this decisive showdown.
In the initial stages of the match, the main actor was rather referee Gianluca Rocchi, who took out his yellow card four times in the first 30 minutes to set his expectations. It worked well, as the ref didn’t have to book any additional name in his notebook later in the game.
But Rocchi also had to work hard to defuse a small brawl ignited when Sami Khedira did not give Napoli the ball back, after the Partenopei had put it out to allow injured Douglas Costa to be medicated. That proved to be the most exciting memento from the whole first half, except for a post hit by Miralem Pjanic directly from the free kick spot, but with the cooperation of Napoli’s wall.
After the break, Massimiliano Allegri, who had already lost Giorgio Chiellini for an injury, tried an early reshuffling of his cards, and operated a second change, sending in Juan Cuadrado for Paulo Dybala. Maurizio Sarri replied deploying his Polish combo in the space of five minutes, with Arkadiusz Milik and Piotr Zielinski replacing a lost Dries Mertens and Marek Hamsik.
Mario Mandzukic’s turn came in the 70th minute, and ten minutes later Sarri also made his last change, as Marko Rog took the place of Allan Marques. Still, Napoli’s lack of ideas was well exemplified right after this substitution, when Milik aimed for the moon – but literally, his shot from 30 meters ending in the hands of some supporter in the higher seats of the South Stands.
Piotr Zielinski also tried to surprise Gigi Buffon from afar, with a shot that hit the goal target, but was easily parried back by the Nazionale goalkeeper.
All according to plans indeed, but just when the Bianconeri fans were preparing to wave again those black and white flags that had made for a such a great pre-match choreography, a cross from the left side by Lorenzo Insigne turned into a shot, and forced Buffon to push the ball past the end line.
On the subsequent corner kick, Kalidou Koulibaly stood over Mehdi Benatia – the only flaw in the Moroccan’s otherwise-perfect defensive match, to tell the truth – and hit the ball with a providential header that rhymed with Scudetto, or at least clearly sounded like that.
Tutto da rifare! Juventus are “back to square one,” after having dilapidated a six-point lead in the space of one week. Winning the title will now be a matter of avoiding any misstep, but the program for the remaining matches actually seem to favor the Partenopei – as Juventus’ upcoming opponents include Inter and Roma, both matches to be played away for Max Allegri’s side.
In any case, the battle for the Serie A Scudetto has never been so close in the recent years. Please be ready for four weeks of highly-passionate calcio.
April 23, 2018 – Serie A 2017-18 Round 34
SCORER: 89′ Koulibaly
|JUVENTUS (4-3-3): Buffon; Howedes, Benatia, Chiellini (11′ Lichtsteiner), Asamoah; Khedira, Pjanic, Matuidi; D. Costa (71′ Mandzukic), Higuain, Dybala (46′ Cuadrado) (Szczesny, Pinsoglio, Barzagli, Rugani, Alex Sandro, Bentancur, Bernardeschi) Coach: Allegri|
|NAPOLI (4-3-3): Reina; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Hysaj; Allan (87’ Rog), Jorginho, Hamsik (66’ Zielinski); Callejon, Mertens (66′ Milik), Insigne (Rafael, Sepe, Milic, Tonelli, Chiriches, Machach, Ounas, Diawara) Coach: Sarri|
REFEREE: Mr. Rocchi from Firenze
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Benatia, Asamoah, Pjanic (J), Albiol (N)