Napoli bounced back on Saturday at the San Paolo with a 3-2 win over relegation battling Bologna. The win came just days after a controversial 1-0 loss to Inter Milan which saw a Lauturo Martinez stoppage time winner derail Napoli’s hopes of closing the gap on Juventus.
Napoli were without the suspended Koulibaly and Insigne for Saturday’s match which opened the door for Ancelotti to go with the rarely seen 4-4-2 with Mertens and Milik playing together up top. The tactical switch seemed to pay off early as Napoli got out to a quick lead when the ball fell kindly to Milik at the top of the six yard box following an attempt from Mertens. Any hopes of an easy win for Napoli quickly vanished in the 37th minute as Federico Santander headed in the equalizer from a free kick. The second half started much like the first with Napoli controlling possession and Bologna looking to attack on the counter. Milik scored his second goal of the day in the 51st minute when he headed in a beautifully delivered curling cross from Malcuit. However it was more of the same when in the 80th minute the hosts once again conceded from a set piece as Danilo rose above the rest of the Napoli defense. Just when all hoped seemed to be lost, Mertens long range strike in the 88th minute snuck under the outstretched arms of the unsuspecting Bologna keeper saving the hosts from what would have been a dreadful week.
The loss of Koulibaly was evident in this match as Napoli conceded two goals from poor marking on set pieces. Throughout the season, Koulibaly has covered up many of the weaknesses in the back line including the rotating door at fullback (Ancelotti even tried Callejon as a right back against Inter). The loss of Hamsik (thigh injury) also proved significant as Zielinski moved back into his preferred role in the center of midfield next to Allan. While Zielinski is an incredibly gifted and creative player, his defensive work rate is not as high as Hamsik which seemed to leave more space between the midfield and the defense.
Unlike in previous seasons under Sarri, it is unclear what Ancelotti’s preferred eleven is. This may be be due to better depth from summer signings and players recovering from injuries, however, it may be a sign of uncertainty as to how all of these pieces fit together. The lack of rotation was the biggest criticism of Sarri but in a strange way it may have been his biggest strength. At this point last season, Napoli were top of the table with 48 points compared to 44 points this season. Overall, however, this was a positive end to the first half of the season as Napoli earn a crucial three points keeping the club’s Scudetto hopes alive.