Could Napoli finally end their title drought?
The most important single touch of the 2015/16 season thus far came on Monday night, deep into stoppage time at the end of Napoli’s 2-1 victory over Inter.
With Inter pushing desperately for an equaliser, Jonathan Biabiany lobbed a hopeful right-wing cross into the box, which dropped perfectly at the head of Miranda, the Brazilian centre-back who had sprinted upfront to become an emergency striker. His glancing header appeared perfectly directed into the far corner, but somehow Pepe Reina launched himself towards the ball, anticipated the bounce correctly and turned the ball onto the far post. It was the final action of the game.
It was a magnificent save at any time – let alone in the last minute of a game between first and second in Serie A, and Reina celebrated like he’d won the league. And maybe, by the end of the season, we’ll look back upon that and decide it was the defining moment in Napoli’s title-winning campaign.
It feels strange to look at the Serie A title odds and see Napoli widely available at odds-on. This is Napoli: they haven’t won the title since the days of Diego Maradona, and their half-hearted title challenges in recent years have often been derailed because it simply feels like they don’t have the requisite belief, the required winning mentality that is second nature to Juventus, Milan and Inter. It’s a simplistic concept, certainly, and yet recent evidence has done little to dispel the feeling.
This is surely the best Napoli side of recent times. Maurizio Sarri has created a watertight defence which went an incredible 533 minutes without conceding until Adem Ljajic netted a consolation on Monday night, the midfield has been reformatted to play to the strengths of the key players (whereas Rafael Benitez seemed to work the other way around, system-first) and upfront Gonzalo Higuain is the league’s top goalscorer. Napoli are unbeaten in 18 games.
Nevertheless, there are still question marks.
Napoli’s previous problem, particularly under Walter Mazzarri, was an inability to defeat their title rivals – they seemed to freeze on the big occasion.
The worry now, however, is that they might not be efficient enough at killing off smaller sides. Sarri’s team have won just four of their eight matches against bottom-half clubs, and while defeating big sides generally attracts more favourable headlines, Serie A’s winners are usually the best team at defeating weaker sides, in a league where even the minnows are well-drilled tactically. This might actually become a greater problem now Napoli are established as the league’s best team – opponents will increasingly sit back and look to play for a draw.
There’s also a huge dependence upon Higuain for goals. He’s contributed 46% of Napoli’s total so far, and in this system play revolves around him massively. A dip in form or an injury setback would be a huge problem – and while you can say that about any team’s first-choice centre-forward, no other Serie A title challenger is as reliant on one player to this extent. Probable stand-in Manolo Gabbiadiani is a talented player, but it’s unlikely he would spearhead a title charge.
Even that victory over Inter wasn’t entirely convincing. Napoli were ahead from the second minute, and were handed a further boost when Inter left-back Yuto Nagatomo was dismissed before half-time in entirely foolish circumstances, throwing himself into a completely unnecessary challenge.
But with a one-goal and one-man lead, Napoli still wobbled. Higuain scored his second to seemingly put the game to bed, but then Napoli invited pressure, conceded one goal and then panicked, becoming extraordinarily defensive and failing to offer any kind of counter-attacking threat despite Inter leaving massive gaps at the back. Higuain had no-one within 30 yards of him.
Sarri was so frustrated by this display that he forced his players to watch back the final 20 minutes at training the following day – which at least proves that he understands the need to improve in this res.
The results could hardly be more impressive – but scratch under the surface and Napoli are more vulnerable than you might expect. They’re only a point ahead of Inter, two ahead of Fiorentina and four clear of Roma. And that’s not taking into account Juventus, who have recovered from a disastrous start to collect five wins from their last six matches. Overturning a seven-point deficit won’t be easy, but Juve’s superior squad will be crucial in the second half of the season.
Napoli are top of the league, clearly the league’s best side on current form and therefore rightly favourites for the title. It would be brilliant to see an ‘outsider’ triumph, but it’s important not to get carried away just yet – backing Napoli at odds-on doesn’t represent great value.
December 4th, 2015 by Michael Cox