Since the home game against Benfica in the Champions League, Napoli have struggled to find form and the capability to play their once fast paced, one touch attacking football. That style at times would leave the opposition shell shocked and unable to cope with the movement of Napoli’s attacking players, but without it they have looked like barely a shell of that team — but are Napoli really back to their best, or was this just a result of Inter Milan having a very, very bad day.
For the first 20 minutes on Friday night Inter were bombarded by a team that in previous outings looked deflated and depressed; there was a new found hunger and determination in the eyes of I Ciucciarelli. Bearing the brunt of this recent injection of grinta was Andrea Ranocchia — both he and his defensive partner would be led on a merry waltz in the opening 5 minutes looking dazed an confused the Inter players could only point the finger searching for someone to blame for losing the game so early.
Much of that blame can be rested upon the hefty shoulders of Geoffrey Kondogbia —Kondogbia looked like he was running in slow motion for the entire first half. He and Ever Banega never once tracked the runs into space that Marek Hamsik was making nor, did they get close to Piotr Zielinski who was causing all sorts of mayhem in that initial opening salvo by scoring and setting up Hamsik for Napoli’s second goal.
So what changed, what made a team suffering for weeks to suddenly rediscover their form, a team that was expected to suffer even more in this match due to having Dries Mertens out through a suspension? One word: hunger.
Napoli were ravenous, a starving beast that sensed a bloody carcass dropped outside it’s cave. From finally winning the long balls that Koulibaly always pumps forward at the kick off, to seeing Manolo Gabbiadini come deep and a play a first time pass that found a team-mate, to watching Elseid Hysaj dance past four Inter players and not turn around and play the ball backwards to his goalkeeper, to applauding Insigne as he out fought Ranocchia for a ball.
The attitude was right, they knew they had to win, that they had to finally put down a marker and say no the season is not over yet, we are still here and who the hell are Inter! This was Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli firing on all cylinders — other than the line up and a slight alteration in tactical intent, nothing was much different from other recent matches were they looked dead and buried. Sarri picked the right line up for this one, picking Diawara ahead of Jorginho and Zielinski instead of Allan, meant that the young Guinean could sit back and screen the defense, adding some much needed muscle against and more physical side. This allowed Zielinski and Hamsik to get in behind and find acres of space between the Inter midfield line and their defense.
The return of Raul Albiol also ensured a stability that had been missing although he almost gifted the Nerazzurri a goal by misplacing a pass from the back. With Albiol on the pitch and an effective Gabbiadini leading the line and forcing the Inter defenders to play deeper than they would have wished, Napoli’s use of the long ball became an outlet that caused Inter a lot of problems.
The major difference, though, was the pace and speed that Napoli passed and moved the ball around at. Gone was the four or five touches that killed the game in other matches. The ball was zipped about first time, one touch, control and pass it off- perfectly demonstrated by the build up for the first goal. In the opening half very few passes went backwards, nobody was hiding on the pitch and looking for the easy option, no fear- the players could finally express themselves again.
With that said Napoli still gave up big chances for Inter to get back into the game and we owe the clean sheet to Pepe Reina for making 3 outstanding saves. Reina has had plenty of criticisms in the past year but last night he steeped up, he was focused and his distribution was excellent.
By the time Insigne scored the 3rd goal the game was over and Napoli saw the match out. We also got to finally see Marko Rog make his debut an he looked skillful, smart and tough in the 15 or so minutes he got.
Napoli aren’t dead yet, these players can still play at the level they are expected to but what has been missing is drive, something that has been said about them for a few years now. As long as they have the right motivation, the right line up for the right match and a bit of luck, they should be able to keep it up. If they can’t then it is apparent that it is not a lack of talent or personnel, but one of attitude. Let us hope that this season is not decided by attitude.