Feature Photo: AFP / Filippo Monteforte
Rome, Stadio Olimpico. Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli came, beat Simone Inzaghi’s Lazio and collected their first three points to push “relegation” away. Oh yes, relegation, as many commentators would argue. These three points contributed to appease a hysterical fan base, turned scared and neurotic on the wave of some national and local press’ comments. This Neapolitan side isn’t worth more than a 7th place, they say. Out of Champions League, and of any football accomplishment appropriate to their history.
That’s what Italian top commentators – the likes of Mario Sconcerti, Pierluigi Pardo, Xavier Iacobelli – have been saying for weeks, firing attacks and criticism at a supposedly insufficient transfer market campaign. Most bookmakers, however, still have a different opinion and see Napoli as the second or third contender for the Scudetto. And last night, what seen on the pitch showed that there’s more to football than summer talk.
When it comes to transfer market, on the other hand, Lazio did land a big shot this summer, maintaining in their roster Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The 23-year-old Serbian midfielder born in Lleida will not leave the capital of Italy for at least one more season, much to the satisfaction of President Claudio Lotito. Still, not even that was enough to placate the anxiety of Italian press, who had for Lazio the same treatment reserved to the Partenopei.
In an ideal starting grid, the Biancocelesti were placed – together with Sampdoria, Atalanta, and Fiorentina – in that lot of clubs destined to battle for a Europa League place. But the sales of players like Felipe Anderson and Stefan De Vrij couldn’t be compensated by the mere purchases of Stefano Acerbi and Joaquìn Correa. Midfielder Milan Badelj looks like the only quality acquisition in Simone Inzaghi’s squad, whereas Ciro Immobile was left once again without an adequate substitute.
Both clubs’ transfer sessions indeed look miserable if compared to the sounding campaigns of Juventus, Inter, Milan, and Roma – which spent a total of 593 million euro, 50 more that the rest of Serie A squads combined. But when the ball starts to roll for real, very little remains of all those summer talks and transfer market speculations. Inzaghi and Ancelotti know that very well, and promptly fizzled any criticism by offering a pretty entertaining show last night.
It was August 18, and that should be kept in mind when evaluating a game inevitably affected by the warm temperature. Both Lazio and Napoli wanted to make full score, and gave life to a match whose pace switched from fast to slow multiple times.
Simone Inzaghi couldn’t count on one-match banned Lucas Leiva and Senad Lulic, as well as on newcomer Valon Berisha – kept at bay by a muscular strain. Adam Marusic and Martin Caceres were deployed on the sidelines, whereas Milan Badelj acted as playmaker. Fiorentina’s former player found himself at ease in Lazio’s central line, contributing together with Marco Parolo and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to the Biancocelesti’s superiority in midfield.
Carlo Ancelotti lined up a Sarri-style Napoli, the only change versus the traditional formation being goalkeeper Oscar Karnezis. But the real innovation was in midfield, where Marek Hamsik took the role of playmaker: A quite unsuccessful experiment, as Napoli’s captain appeared hesitant in the role, conceding the first chance to Lazio early in the game.
The Eagles started to believe in it, taking advantage of the visitors’ insecurities and lack of concentration. Caceres and Luis Alberto wasted two favorable chances, but Lazio’s lead eventually materialized in the 25th minute. Ciro Immobile, whose heart is Neapolitan, but whose jersey is Laziale, invented an extraordinary champagne football flick: First, he freed himself of Mario Rui, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol with a heel kick, then beat Karnezis with a sharp left foot shot. 1-0 for Lazio, and 68th goal in 89 caps with the Biancocelesti for the Nazionale striker.
It looked like the beginning of a painful setback for Napoli, yet Immobile’s goal had the effect of waking up the lion. The Partenopei turned the tables and put the home side on the ropes. Lorenzo Insigne fired a curl shot that narrowly missed the target, and Piotr Zielinski made the crossbar rattle from out of the box. Arkadiusz Milik did hit the target, but his goal was rightly disallowed for a foul by Koulibaly on Stefan Radu.
Milik tried again, calling goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha to a difficult save, then found his charm on the third attempt, finalizing an action which was the essence of Maurizio Sarri’s calcio: Insigne produced a sharp cross from the left flank to find José Callejon on the opposite side. The Spaniard re-sent the ball in for the Pole, who only had to push it in to make it even. It was the 47th minute, and referee Luca Banti decided to send the teams for a break.
The second half followed the same pattern, with Napoli remembering who they are, and increasing the pressure minute after minute. The opponents’ pressing evidenced the limits of Lazio, which fell victim of the same blackouts seen during the last season. Ancelotti’s spider web, directed by a more present Hamsik, managed to unbalance the home side’s defense, and Insigne was cynical enough to punish them with an accurate bend shot that beat Strakosha for the second time.
Napoli’s coach sent in some fresh forces, making Amadou Diawara, Dries Mertens and Mirko Rog debut. But despite the inevitable decline in their opponents’ pace, Lazio’s attempts to equalize were confused and ineffective. And still, Napoli needed to help of their patron saint San Gennaro to catch the three points, as a violent header by Stefano Acerbi from no-distance was pushed back by Karnezis’ post. The Partenopei ended the match in control, went close to make it three, and could ultimately celebrate their first seasonal win.
Ancelotti’s calm in the storm eventually paid off, showing supporters and press that this Neapolitan side is solid and abundant with quality. Simone Inzaghi, on the other hand, must be biting his lips at the outcome of a match that was well within his club’s reach. Once again, this is still calcio d’agosto (summer football), but the green pitch has already spoken clearly. No matter what press say.
August 18, 2018 – Serie A 2018-19 Round 1
SCORERS: 25′ Immobile (L), 47′ Milik (N); 59′ Insigne (N)
|LAZIO (3-5-1-1): Strakosha; Luiz Felipe (46′ Bastos), Acerbi, Radu; Marusic, Parolo (89′ Cataldi), Badelj (68′ Correa), Milinkovic-Savic, Caceres; Luis Alberto; Immobile (Guerrieri, Proto, Wallace, Basta, Durmisi, Jordao, Murgia, Caicedo, Rossi) Coach: S. Inzaghi|
|NAPOLI (4-3-3): Karnezis; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Mario Rui; Allan, Hamsik (70′ Diawara), Zielinski (85′ Rog); Callejon, Milik, Insigne (76′ Mertens) (Ospina, Marfella, Maksimovic, Chiriches, Malcuit, Luperto, F. Ruiz, Ounas, Verdi) Coach: Ancelotti|
REFEREE: Mr. Banti from Livorno
NOTES: No Yellow Cards