Napoli are back atop Serie A, and they got there in style. After going down a goal just moments into the match, Napoli came roaring back with four unanswered goals to knock the Romans down a peg and stamp their authority back on the title race in Italy with a huge 4-1 win.
Things didn’t start nearly that well, though. Napoli’s defense started off shakily, looking nervous against an aggressive start from Lazio’s attack. Thanks to a training injury to Vlad Chiriches and Raul Albiol already hurt, Lorenzo Tonelli was forced to take the pitch for the first time this season — indeed, for the first time for the senior squad in more than a full year — and the unease at the back was palpable for it. In fact, when Ciro Immobile lanced in a cross in the third minute, Tonelli was right there, marking the wrong man as Stefan De Vrij ran in free behind him to score easily.
Criticizing Tonelli solely for that goal is a bit unfair — Kalidou Koulibaly arguably should have been guarding the near post in that situation, leaving Tonelli free to look for a runner like De Vrij — but it was understandable to be frustrated under the circumstances. What was more frustrating, though, was that Napoli responded poorly to the goal. They were slow and sloppy all over the pitch, allowing Lazio to dominate early possession and leaving the partenopei struggling to claw their way back into the match for much of the first half.
After around the 25 minute mark, though, we started to see a bit more of the “real” Napoli start to show up. The fire started to get rekindled in the side, and the tempo started to pick up. By the 40th minute, it was clear that Lazio was starting to rock back on their heels, and when Jorginho dropped a perfect long pass over the top for Jose Callejon to tap home in the 43rd minute after practically pantsing Stefan Radu with a run behind, it was little surprise that Napoli were level going into halftime.
But it was the second half when we really saw Napoli pick up steam. Despite losing Marek Hamsik at halftime to a back injury he’d been trying — and mostly failing — to play through, they came out swinging hard and fast. Less than ten minutes into the second half, Jose Callejon popped up again, this time forcing an own goal from Wallace, who desperately tried to cut out Callejon’s thundering low cross to Lorenzo Insigne at the far post and turned it into his own goal instead. Two minutes later, it was Mario Rui scoring with a missile of a shot from well outside the box that deflected off Piotr Zielinski, but was likely going to end up in the back of the net either way.
In a matter of less than 15 minutes of game time, Napoli had turned the game completely around, going from 1-0 down to 3-1 up. The scariest part was that Napoli easily could have been up more — by the time Wallace’s own goal had been scored, Lorenzo Insigne had a hat trick’s worth of should-have-been-a-goal near misses. Add that to a frankly top-shelf performance in goal from Thomas Strakosha, and Napoli could have had six or seven goals by the hour mark.
They would add one more — Zielinski had a brilliant assist to Dries Mertens to finish off a gorgeous team move, and Stefan Radu got beat so badly for a second time that he should really consider retirement — but Lazio’s spirit had been thoroughly broken by then, with Napoli picking them apart at will. It was an absolutely immense performance by the end, made all the more impressive by the club’s poor start to the match.
Lazio have been widely hailed as one of the most impressive sides in Italy this season, and have drawn praise for their Europa League showing as well. But Napoli have dominated them this season to the tune of an 8-2 aggregate scoreline, and the partenopei now stand seventeen points clear of the third-place Roman side. It’s been an extraordinary season for Napoli, and this game was a fantastic example of just how good this team can be, especially when they play as such a complete unit.
The fire of Allan, the calm or Jorginho, the drive of Lorenzo Insigne, the grace of Jose Callejon, and power of Kalidou Koulibaly all played huge roles in turning around this match for Napoli. There was no one player responsible for this win — it was the entire squad, working as a unit, that got the job done. Heck, even Lorenzo Tonelli got in on the action, making a couple of key plays in the back to stop or disrupt Lazio attacks in the first half to keep Napoli in the match while they were getting their feed under them.
At the end of the season, when Napoli fans are looking back at the season, they’ll look back at this match and remember it fondly. If Napoli win the scudetto — and yes, that’s still a big “if” with Juventus just one point back — this is one of the matches that we can point at that makes such a feat possible. But Napoli still have a lot of work to do between now and the end of the season, so...
On to the next.