The warning signs were there for another Napoli implosion, but Maurizo Sarri’s side responded emphatically to beat LazioShare on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email View more sharing options Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on Google+ Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Close
Napoli went into their Saturday night meeting with Lazio under real pressure. For a club with a recent history of implosions, this did not bode well. The last time they were involved in a serious Scudetto push, in 2015-16, they self-destructed at Udinese. Defeat that day meant they ceded crucial ground to eventual champions Juventus. Almost two years on, a similarly fateful performance seemed to be on the cards.
All the warning signs were there. Juve had taken top spot with a win over Fiorentina on Friday, meaning Napoli had to beat third-placed Lazio in order to reclaim the initiative. They proceeded to go 1-0 down within three minutes, before Maurizio Sarri was dismissed for dissent. Marek Hamsik’s pre-match reassurance that he and his team-mates were “accustomed to pressure” looked suspect. However, rather than imploding, this time Napoli showed the fortitude of genuine contenders.
By the time Sarri had been instructed to leave the touchline, the Stadio San Paolo had been sent into raptures by a calm José Callejón finish. That equaliser, which came shortly before half-time after a long ball over the top and a well-timed Callejón run, essentially told the story of a tense opening 45 minutes.
Lazio, copying a strategy Juventus and Inter both successfully deployed earlier this season, compressed the space between their defence and midfield. Their back five was positioned roughly halfway between the edge of their penalty area and the halfway line, while their midfield comprised two layers: Lucas Leiva and Marco Parolo operating behind Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto. This structure made it difficult for Napoli to play their usual high-speed, vertical passing game through the centre; even when they managed to penetrate Lazio’s midfield, their front three had little time on the ball once it reached them.
Unable to go through their opposition, Napoli went over the top. They played more directly than usual, mostly aiming for the spaces between Lazio’s outer centre-backs and wing-backs. But, while one of these balls led to the equaliser, it also created a sense of unease. A team at times accused of playing too many passes were now skipping ahead in moves, attempting to exploit gaps in the Lazio defence that didn’t exist, and giving up control in the process.
It’s anyone’s guess exactly what was said in the Napoli dressing room at half-time, but deep down every player and staff member must have known the importance of that break. The way they approached the second half had the potential to define their campaign – either they would be paralysed by the pressure or regain control of the contest, and the Scudetto race.
Not long after the restart, their choice was clear. Napoli attacked with devastating simplicity, blowing Lazio away with sumptuous football. Sarri stated post-match that “the objective coming out for the second [half] was to pass the ball in our usual style.” That objective was achieved emphatically thanks to a higher tempo with and without possession.
Napoli re-appeared a more compact outfit, with shorter distances between players enabling their customary quick passing. A beneficial side-effect was that it facilitated pressing immediately after losing possession. So, when Lazio’s Senad Lulic received the ball after a turnover inside his own half, he was instantly surrounded by three Napoli players and easily dispossessed. From there the ball was worked to Callejón, whose cross was diverted in by Lazio centre-back Wallace.
Another tenet clearly reinforced by the home side at the break was: one touch is better than two. Lazio were left chasing shadows, and Napoli’s third came two minutes after their second. Mario Rui and PiotrZielinski combined for the goal the latter deflecting in the former’s left-footed drive.
Poor Lazio didn’t really deserve this. For the best part of an hour they had put forth a fine effort. Milinkovic-Savic, their star midfielder who combines the physique of a classically trained English centre-half with the poise and grace of a ballerina, had been at his roaming best. Stefan de Vrij, after scoring the opener, had defended imperiously. Ciro Immobile, Serie A’s top scorer, had made a number of dangerous runs. But they simply couldn’t get near their hosts at the start of the second period, and the shadow-chasing would only get worse.
Napoli relaxed into their dominance, even, occasionally, flaunting it. At one point, Zielinksi, Rui and Lorenzo Insigne combined in a left-sided triangle around two despairing Lazio players. The intent was not to progress the attack, but to humiliate the opposition. In what was an act of footballing cruelty, they passed for the sake of passing.
Their next piece of brilliant combination play proved more decisive. Jorginho won possession inside his own half and passed to Insigne. Insigne played it inside to Zielinski, who completed the triangle with a backheel to Jorginho, who accelerated forward and lofted a ball over the top for Zielinski to run on to. Zielinski took a couple of touches, performed a couple of step-overs, and then dinked the ball into the path of the onrushing Dries Mertens. The Belgian, as if attempting primarily not to ruin the delicate and precise nature of the move, rolled a whisper of a finish beyond Thomas Strakosha.
With that, the game was over as a contest. Every now and then they would try to score another, such as when a move involving all but one of their 11 players and 37 consecutive passes led to another cheeky lob from Insigne. But Sarri’s side had already rammed home their point.
Lorenzo Tonelli was the only Napoli player not involved in that 37-pass move, but his mere appearance on the pitch answered another important question regarding the team’s title credentials. The rugged centre-back, once considered one of the finest Italians in his position, hadn’t played since January. That he didn’t look out of place on his return challenged the notion that Napoli’s squad lacks depth, a notion further undermined by the integral performances of stand-in left-back Rui and substitute Zielinski.
Sunday’s Italian sports dailies were united in praise of Napoli’s show of strength. Words such as “enchanting” and “festival” were used, though Tuttosport, who went with “unleashed”, best captured the general feeling. Napoli remain top and look increasingly capable of staying there.Talking points
• Cengiz Under enjoyed his best game for Roma since joining last summer, playing a decisive role in the 5-2 win over Benevento. The 20-year-old set up Edin Dzeko before scoring twice, his second a beautiful curled effort. His performance on the right wing suggests the Giallorossi may have found their long-term Mohamed Salah replacement.
• Clearly this was a weekend for breakout stars. Yann Karamoh, who is just 19, capped off a fine individual showing by scoring the winner for Inter in a 2-1 victory over Bologna.
• Fiorentina were awarded a penalty in the first half of their 2-0 defeat by Juventus, only for the decision to be reversed following a prolonged consultation between Marco Guida and the video assistant referee. Predictably, the decision caused discontent. “Seeing as it was a very balanced encounter, these are the incidents that change a match,” said Viola boss Stefano Pioli.Topics Napoli Sportblog Serie A European club football features Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on Google+ Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Reuse this content