Napoli have never looked more ready under Sarri to challenge for Serie A title

Paolo Bandini on 21 September 2017

Maurizio Sarri did not feel anxious as he headed for the tunnel. His team was a goal down to an in-form Lazio, who had already beaten Juventus and thrashed Milan in the past six weeks. And yet, the Napoli manager told his players to change nothing. Just keep doing what you’re doing, lads, and things will turn out right in the end.

Or, at least, that’s the way he told it afterwards. Only those individuals present in the Stadio Olimpico’s away changing room can know whether Sarri’s team-talk truly was as zen as he claimed. What we can say is this: he was entitled to have faith in his team.

Slow starts have been a theme of this season for Napoli, you see, but so have ferocious fast finishes. They were 1-0 down after 45 minutes against Atalanta at the end of last month, and came away 3-1 winners. Either side of that fixture, they played away to Nice and Bologna. Both games were goalless at the interval; both finished up as comfortable victories.

So perhaps it was this recent experience which gave Sarri such confidence on Wednesday night. Or maybe he had spotted Stefan de Vrij limping. Lazio’s best centre-back, as well as the scorer of the opening goal, had suffered a muscle strain and would not return for the second half. The hosts had already lost another defender, Angola’s Bastos, to injury after 25 minutes.

Such injuries left them with a makeshift back three, featuring Dusan Basta – more naturally a wing-back – and Lucas Leiva. Not the ideal combination for facing Serie A’s most prolific attack.

And here we get to the heart of the matter, because if Sarri truly did feel confident of turning things around, it was probably because he could glance around that changing room and see Dries Mertens, José Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne looking back at him.

Perhaps it is even more than that. The brilliance of Napoli’s front three should not blind us to the quality running through the rest of the side: the force and fury of Allan, the calm control of Jorginho or even the under-appreciated ball distribution of Kalidou Koulibaly.

It was centre-back Koulibably who pulled Napoli level on Wednesday, forcing the ball home after goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha had blocked an initial effort by Raúl Albiol. Within two minutes, the visitors had taken the lead. This time it was Callejón, finishing coolly from the edge of the box after Marek Hamsik squared the ball into his path.

Napoli’s third goal, though, is the one that will be remembered. Strakosha had shown impressive alertness to race off his line and knock away a long pass from Jorginho before Mertens could bring it under control. As the ball ran away towards Napoli’s left flank, the Belgian forward continued to pursue it. With the keeper suddenly caught in no-man’s land, he twisted his body back to arc a shot from outside the box into the far top corner.

Dries Mertens leads the celebrations after his goal by raising a toast.
Dries Mertens leads the celebrations after his goal by raising a toast. Photograph: Angelo Carconi/EPA

No sooner had the ball hit the net, than the comparisons began. “Hey, wasn’t that just like the one by Diego Maradona?” Well, kind of. The Argentinian did score a famous chip of his own in February 1985, against the same opponents and from the same side of the pitch – but he scored from a less acute angle.

Mertens would prefer not to have his every achievement juxtaposed with those of Napoli’s greatest player, but it is a testament to how good he has been over the past 12 months that it continues to happen regardless. “Like Diego,” ran the front-page headline on Thursday’s Corriere dello Sport. “Was that Dries or Maradona?” asked Gazzetta.

Mertens had celebrated by raising an imaginary toast, miming a cup and lifting it to his lips. We might all do well to stop worrying about the past for a moment and just enjoy drinking down this present-day Napoli.

They are hardly a flawless team, and Sarri had already vented his frustration about the slow starts in recent press conferences. We are also yet to see the best of Hamsik this season, although this was possibly his best performance of the campaign. But they can be irresistible when everything is clicking.

Right now, it really is. Napoli would eventually make it 4-1 on Wednesday, Jorginho converting from the penalty spot in injury time. The Serie A season is just five games old, yet this was already their 19th goal and their 10th different goalscorer. Dating back to last season, they have now won 10 consecutive league games: a club record.

Perhaps they caught a few breaks on Wednesday. Those injuries certainly disrupted Lazio, who finished the game with 10 men – Basta leaving on a stretcher after they had made their final substitution. Napoli had already scored their third goal before then, however. And Lazio failed to muster a single second-half shot on goal.

Early days it may be, but Napoli have never looked more ready, under Sarri, to challenge for the title. When an interviewer from Mediaset Premium asked about that prospect after the game, though, he gave a typically deadpan response: “I need to go to bed. We’ve got training tomorrow.”

Just keep doing what we’ve been doing, lads. Things might just turn out right, in the end.

Talking points

• The only other team left with maximum points is, of course, Juventus, after they beat Fiorentina in Turin. Theirs was not such a compelling performance, Mario Mandzukic’s second-half goal the difference between the two teams. It arrived in the 52nd minute, and was the first shot on target of the entire game (Fiorentina still had not managed one by full-time). Beyond the three points, there were further positives to be found for Juve in an impressive first league start for the 20-year-old Rodrigo Bentancur. Max Allegri has been warning us since the summer that the Uruguayan midfielder could be an extra ace up the Old Lady’s sleeve, and his confidence in possession is certainly striking.

Juventus fans during the win over Fiorentina.
Juventus fans during the win over Fiorentina. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

• Inter, who played on Tuesday, got to enjoy one night alone atop the table, but their draw with Bologna served as a reality check for a team that has not always been playing as well as results might suggest. Luciano Spalletti accused his team of lacking speed and aggression, though in some cases they seemed to be suffering more from a lack of precision. Antonio Candreva attempted an astonishing 22 crosses over the course of the game, and found his target with just two.

• Another round of games, a fresh humiliation for Benevento and Crotone – who suffered four-goal defeats to Roma and Atalanta, respectively. The bottom part of the table, in general, makes for ugly reading. Those two teams have scored a single goal each, as have 18th-placed Verona. They have conceded 36 between them. That is not to take anything away from the victorious sides in those two contests, of course. Edin Dzeko grabbed two of Roma’s goals, and has now scored against 22 of the 23 teams he has faced in Serie A. Josip Ilicic’s slalom past three defenders for Atalanta’s third against Crotone, meanwhile, bears a repeat viewing.

Results: Bologna 1-1 Internazionale, Atalanta 5-1 Crotone, Benevento 0-4 Roma, Cagliari 0-1 Sassuolo, Genoa 1-1 Chievo, Juventus 1-0 Fiorentina, Milan 2-0 SPAL, Lazio 1-4 Napoli, Udinese 2-3 Torino, Verona 0-0 Sampdoria.

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Napoli 5 16 15
2 Juventus 5 11 15
3 Inter Milan 5 9 13
4 AC Milan 5 4 12
5 Torino 5 5 11
6 Lazio 5 2 10
7 Roma 4 6 9
8 Sampdoria 4 2 8
9 Atalanta 5 2 7
10 Fiorentina 5 1 6
11 Cagliari 5 -2 6
12 Chievo 5 -3 5
13 Bologna 5 -3 5
14 SPAL 5 -5 4
15 Sassuolo 5 -5 4
16 Udinese 5 -3 3
17 Genoa 5 -4 2
18 Verona 5 -10 2
19 Crotone 5 -10 1
20 Benevento 5 -13 0

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