Napoli’s title challenge sputtered on a cold Sunday night at San Siro when the Partenopei drew 0-0 with top four contenders Inter for the second time this season. The shared points left both teams behind in their respective quests.
Inter’s Milan Skriniar dominated defensively and his glancing header off the post was as close as either side came to breaking the deadlock.
Kolby Kuwitzky has the key takeaways from the game, before looking forward to what lies ahead for both teams.
1 Aggressive Inter lineup results in resolute defence
Inter manager Luciano Spalletti opted for an attack-minded midfield on Sunday night, choosing Roberto Gagliardini and Marcelo Brozovic as the central pairing in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Both players’ strengths lie in offensive aspects of the midfield position and, against a high-scoring outfit like Napoli, this lineup risked being badly exposed.
Spalletti’s gamble paid off. Gagliardini and Brozovic held their positional discipline and their passing abilities allowed Inter to break Napoli’s press and start transitions better than a more traditionally defensive setup likely would have. Napoli still dominated the possession statistics but the increased threat of Inter’s counterattacks forced the visitors to play a narrower, more easily defended game.
This game plan would not have been an option were it not for the predictably excellent performance of Inter’s central defensive partnership. Milan Skriniar and Miranda once again proved nearly impenetrable. Napoli’s lack of an aerial threat meant the physically imposing defensive duo easily dominated the air but the positional co-ordination of the Inter back line also held together admirably and Napoli were consistently frustrated into shooting from wide angles outside the penalty area.
2 No Plan B for Napoli
The Partenopei failed to score for the second time this season against Inter, and once again the lack of an alternative way of creating goals cost the title challengers vital points. It is not unusual for a team that plays the beautiful, fluid style of football employed by Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli to struggle from time to time against an opponent with an excellent defensive record in good form but (perhaps unfortunately) aesthetics don’t count for much when it comes time to determine a champion.
Napoli’s thrilling front three of Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens all measure well short of six feet tall and, when their system of intricate passing exchanges can’t consistently open up their opponent’s defence, this physical limitation becomes obvious.
The arrival of Arkadiusz Milik from Ajax after Euro 2016 was meant to fill the target man gap left by the departure of Edinson Cavani three years prior but injuries have kept the Polish striker from ever integrating fully into the Napoli way of playing. Milik came on as an ineffectual substitute for the second week in a row, having missed five months with a knee injury.
This conversation wouldn’t be happening, however, had not the shortest of Napoli’s three frontmen made a mess of the Azzurri's best opportunity of the game. Insigne finally broke Inter’s defensive line, receiving a Dries Mertens pass inside the penalty area and with only goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to beat. Rather than taking the higher percentage option of picking a side and shooting, Insigne chose an ill-conceived lob attempt that missed the net by some distance.
3 A shift at the top
Juventus’ 2-0 win over Udinese meant that Napoli’s two dropped points Sunday night cost them top spot in the Serie A table. With the Bianconeri’s game in hand against Atalanta set to be played in Turin on Wednesday night, Napoli could find themselves four points behind the six-time defending champions.
Everyone surrounding Napoli insisted after Sunday’s game that the Scudetto race was far from over. Center back Kalidou Koulibaly insisted that “anyone who doesn’t believe won’t stay in our locker room”, and Sarri pointedly refused to “accept the idea that Napoli are giving up”. Quite why anyone would expect them to give up with so many games left to play remains to be seen. Perhaps they doth protest too much.
Napoli’s next three games are against teams in the relegation battle, but beginning on April 15 they face six consecutive opponents currently in the top 11 of the Serie A table, including visits to AC Milan and, on April 22, Juventus.
4 Top-Four Finish?
Sunday night’s draw gave Inter only one point but results elsewhere kept the Nerazzuri in the thick of the race for a top-four finish and Champions League qualification. Roma defeated Torino 3-0 on Friday evening, sending the Giallorossi into third place on 56 points and Ciro Immobile's immaculate last second, long distance looping back-heel goal in Sardinia gave Lazio a 2-2 draw against Cagliari and fourth place with 53 points.
Inter sit fifth on 52 points, while Milan lag six points behind on 47. The Milan clubs’ game in hand is against each other, as last week’s scheduled Derby della Madonnina was postponed due to the death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori. No date has been announced for the rescheduled derby due to Milan’s continued participation in the Europa League. Whether the Rossoneri’s domestic run of form continues or not, that fixture will undoubtedly have much to say about who earns a top-four finish and access to the lucrative Champions League.
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