August 16, 2022

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Home discomforts and Fiorentina damage Napoli’s hopes of the Scudetto | Serie A

Four years have passed since Napoli “lost a Scudetto in the hotel”. That was how Maurizio Sarri explained things after his then team was thrashed 3-0 by Fiorentina in April 2018, effectively ending their title bid. They had begun the weekend with hopes of going top of the table but suffered an emotional collapse after watching Juventus come from behind to beat Inter the night before.

The Bianconeri trailed that game as late as the 87th minute, despite playing with an extra man for more than an hour. They should have gone down to 10 themselves when Miralem Pjanic, already booked, leapt knee-first into Rafinha at the start of the second half. Instead, an own goal from Milan Skriniar allowed them back into the match and Gonzalo Higuaín snatched a winner at the death.

To the Napoli players watching on televisions in Florence, it felt like a dagger to the heart. One week earlier, they had beaten Juventus in Turin, closing to within a point of first. Inter’s lead had dangled the prospect of an opportunity to overtake. For Higuaín, their former teammate, to snatch it away, felt especially cruel.

Mathematically, the title race was far from over. Napoli could maintain the one-point gap by beating Fiorentina, and Juventus’s remaining three games included a daunting trip to Roma. But in Sarri’s telling, the dream ended with Higuaín’s strike. He saw players “crying on the stairs” as he made his way up to bed.

There were echoes of that story this weekend as Napoli prepared to face Fiorentina. Just like in 2018, Napoli found themselves a single point from Serie A’s summit. An impressive, and essential, 3-1 win away to Atalanta in the previous round lent fresh fuel to the Scudetto dream.

Just like four years ago, they were forced to watch a title rival play before them. Inter started the weekend three points behind Napoli but with a game in hand. Their 2-0 win over Verona on Saturday effectively raised them above the Partenopei into second; they hold the head-to-head tie-breaker.

Right place, right time 👊

Nicolas Gonzalez gets to the rebound and smashes it past the keeper.

Fiorentina lead 1-0. pic.twitter.com/FG4S02Iw2d

— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 10, 2022

The emotional impact of that result could hardly be the same as Juventus’s win in 2018. Despite wobbly recent form, Inter were clear favourites at home to mid-table opposition. Still, the result did reinforce the need for Napoli to respond with a win of their own.

Luciano Spalletti has brought them closer to the summit than any manager since Sarri, but he deflected a question on Saturday about whether he had done enough to earn a Scudetto. “The ones who deserve it most would be Napoli’s supporters,” said Spalletti, adding that a full Stadio Diego Armando Maradona – possible for the first time this season with relaxation of Italy’s Covid laws – could be “the missing piece of the puzzle”.

He might be looking at the picture on the jigsaw box backwards. If Napoli do miss out on the title again, they will not have lost it in a hotel this time but rather in their very own home.

They had already suffered four league defeats in Naples, and Sunday became their fifth. Fiorentina took the lead in the 29th minute through Nicolás González, gave up an equaliser to Dries Mertens after half-time but then roared back to win with further goals from Jonathan Ikoné and Arthur Cabral. Three goals, just like in 2018. Not even a spectacular late strike from Victor Osimhen could rescue Napoli from fate.

The result was a fair reflection of the match. Napoli did start brightly, Osimhen sending a header narrowly off target and having another goal disallowed for offside, but Fiorentina came to control the midfield and punished moments of sloppiness. Kalidou Koulibaly, whose last-man foul on Giovanni Simeone marked the beginning of the collapse four years ago, was at fault again, appealing for a free-kick when he ought to have been closing González down.

In the second half, the visitors targeted Napoli’s right-back Alessandro Zanoli, making just his second senior start. Ikoné, on as a substitute, barely had time to take his first touch before firing a shot through the 21-year-old’s legs and into the bottom corner. Zanoli was caught too high up the pitch as Napoli countered down his side again for Cabral’s winner.

It was a day to celebrate the work of Fiorentina’s manager, Vincenzo Italiano, whose team finished the weekend in seventh. The January sale of Dusan Vlahovic was supposed to derail the Viola’s European ambitions. Instead, they have collected 17 points from nine games without the Serbian and are 23 better off than they were at the corresponding point last season.

Italiano has achieved these results by avoiding overreliance on any one player. His Fiorentina team also won 5-2 away to Napoli in the Coppa Italia at the start of this year. All eight of their goals across the two games had a different scorer.

Even so, questions must be asked of Napoli, who have played as well as anyone in Serie A this season and yet faltered in front of their own fans. They could have been leading the title race if they had not drawn with Inter and lost to Milan in Naples over the past two months.

In between was a 4-2 defeat to Barcelona – more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests – with whom they drew with at the Camp Nou. Domestically, Napoli have not beaten a top-half team at home since they thumped Lazio in November.

All smiles between Vincenzo Italiano (left) and Luciano Spalletti but it was Italiano’s Fiorentina who triumphed.
All smiles between Vincenzo Italiano (left) and Luciano Spalletti but it was Italiano’s Fiorentina who triumphed. Photograph: Franco Romano/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

It is tempting to wonder whether Spalletti’s intense rhetoric has hindered them. Before the Barcelona defeat, he invoked Maradona, cheering the team on from heaven. Ahead of the loss to Milan, he told his players they must decide whether they wanted to be “immortal” or “quickly forgotten”. Might some players have been better served by defusing the pressure instead of raising it?

In more tangible terms, we can ask whether he is getting his tactics right. Osimhen has endured another injury-disrupted season, and Napoli’s position might look different if he had been available throughout, but too often there seems to be disconnect between him and the rest of the team. He touched the ball only 28 times on Sunday, and still produced a goal and an assist.

A midfield that was a strength earlier in the season has lost its way – with Piotr Zielinski a shadow of himself. Lorenzo Insigne had a chance to make this season a glorious send-off before leaving for Toronto but has offered little.

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Serie A results

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Empoli 0-0 Spezia, Inter 2-0 Verona, Cagliari 1-2 Juventus,  Genoa 1-4 Lazio, Napoli 2-3 Fiorentina, Sassuolo 2-1 Atalanta, Venezia 1-2 Udinese, Roma 2-1 Salernitana, Torino 0-0 Milan

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Spalletti described defeat on Sunday as “a bit of a sentence”, suggesting that time was running short. That was before the leaders, Milan, drew with Torino. The gap to first is only two points but Inter have a chance to claim top spot if they can win their game in hand against Bologna.

If Napoli do fall short, there will be other games they look back on with greater regret . Losses at home to Empoli and Spezia feel more damning than to an upwardly-mobile Fiorentina.

Even so, those four-year-old echoes linger. “If I could replay any one match from my career, it would be the Fiorentina-Napoli game from 2018,” said the former Napoli keeper Pepe Reina. “That team deserved more.”

They pushed on, all the same to a club-record 91 points. At best, Napoli can end this campaign with 84. That could be enough, but feels like a distant target for a team that cannot get comfortable in its own home.