Paddy Agnew’s Notes from Italy: Napoli Shock Lazio And Juventus

What a difference a week makes in football. You could forgive Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso if, right now, he is tempted to make that banal observation.

Eight days ago, in the wake of a 0-2 home defeat by Fiorentina, the immediate future did not look too bright for Napoli. That had been the fourth of five games lost under new coach, Gattuso, appointed just before Christmas. Worse still, next up were two of the strongest teams in the land, namely Lazio in a midweek Italian Cup quarter final tie and the champions themselves, Old Lady Juventus, in a Sunday night Serie A clash at the San Paolo.

It would have taken a bold pundit to predict that Napoli, then 11th in Serie A, 27 points adrift of Juventus and torn by litigation between senior players and owner Aurelio De Laurentis, would rise from the ashes to defeat both sides in the space of five days. Football is indeed a funny old game, Brian.

To be fair, we did suggest last week that Napoli’s defeat was perhaps not as “devastating” as it looked, given the overall quality of Giuseppe Iachini’s Fiorentina side. However, you also need a bit of good luck now and again.

Even the most superstitious of fans (and there are plenty of superstitious Napoli fans) would admit that the Sporting Gods were definitely on their side for that 1-0 quarter final win over Lazio. For a start, Lazio were already 1-0 down after only two minutes as Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne caught the Lazio defence cold, dribbling his way to the byeline before beating Lazio goalkeeper, Albanian Thomas Strakosha, from a narrow angle.

Within eight minutes, however, Lazio had a glorious opportunity to equalise when they were awarded a penalty after their Ecuadoran striker, Felipe Caicedo, was bundled over by Napoli defender, Albanian Elseid Hysaj. Up stepped the leading goalscorer in Serie A this season (23 goals), Ciro Immobile, to stage a perfect replay of that unfortunate moment when Chelsea’s John Terry lost his footing and completely missed a penalty in the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United in Moscow.

Undeterred by that bad luck, Lazio came back at Napoli with a vengeance in a Cup tie, classic second half, which saw them hit the woodwork twice and have two goals (Immobile and Marco Parolo) correctly disallowed for offside. On top of that, more than one hour of the game was a 10 v 10 player affair, given that Napoli’s Hysaj and Lazio’s Luca Leiva were both sent off in the first 25 minutes.

In the end, Napoli hung on for a badly needed win which not only put them into a semi-final cup tie but which may also have radically reshaped their thus far, stuttering season. Certainly, that win had something to do with a more confident approach to the home Serie A tie versus Juventus.

Just when we thought that Juventus were about to break from the pack, Napoli brought them down to earth, beating them 2-1 for what was only their third defeat of the season. Remember that Lazio, in the league and the SuperCup before Christmas, are the only other team to have beaten them so far this season.

It might be unwise to read too much into this defeat, as regards Juventus. They are still top of the table, three points clear of Inter, thanks to the fact that both Inter (1-1 v Cagliari) and third-placed Lazio (also 1-1 in the Rome derby) dropped points. Furthermore, we are only at the halfway point in the season with 18 games still to play. There is every reason to suspect that, Champions League campaign notwithstanding, Old Lady Juventus will probably last out the season more strongly than her rivals, physically and mentally.

Certainly, no one who, like your correspondent, was at the Rome derby could escape the sensation that maybe Lazio are beginning to feel the strain as their 11 match winning run came to an abrupt end. In a game dominated by Roma, Lazio had to rely on a horrendous blunder on the part of Roma’s goalkeeper Pau Lopez to let them back into the match.

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Roma should have gone in at half-time at least 1-0 up and comfortably in charge. Instead, they went in on a 1-1 scoreline which could have kickstarted Lazio back to their best form. Simone Inzaghi’s team, however, simply did not seem to have the legs for it in a second half when Roma probably came closest to scoring, with midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini hitting the post with a tremendously well struck from just outside the area. In the end, one suspected that both coaches, Inzaghi and Roma’s Paulo Fonseca, were happy enough to settle for the draw in a typically scrappy derby.

Curiously, too, both goals came for goalkeeping errors. In the 26th minute, Lazio’s Strakosha was beaten by Bosnian Edin Dzeko to a Bryan Cristante cross that he really should have made his own. This was a case of bad timing with Strakosha slow off his line, allowing Dzeko first run.

If that was bad, the mistake made by Roma’s Lopez and his full back Davide Santon eight minutes later was much worse. First Santon completely botched his clearance of a wickedly in-swinging corner kick, heading the ball high into the air on the goal line rather than knocking it away for another corner.

Worse still, Lopez then failed to put the ball out of play as it came down, inadvertently knocking into the path of Lazio defender Francesco Acerbi for a goal that was pure tragicomedy – tragedy for Roma, comedy for Lazio, that is.

Curiously, in the first derby last September, Lazio had the better of the exchanges and probably should have won a game which ended 1-1. This time, the roles were inverted with Roma having the better of the match but having to settle for a 1-1 draw. You win some, you lose some and you also draw some.

Final thought this week – unlike the strangely uninspired Juventus, the obviously tired Lazio and an equally tired Inter, Atalanta proved that they are one Serie A side whose engines are still roaring at full throttle. Their 7-0 destruction of Torino is a reminder that when they are on song, they can prove a handful. Valencia, their Champions League second round opponents next month, have been warned.

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