With Lazio snatching a shock win at the Juventus Stadium just before kick-off at the Stadio Olimpico, the lights had become all the more intense as Napoli took on Roma. There’s old age wisdom of ‘winning DNA’ in football. The top clubs all have it, when the lights are the brightest and the crowd are the loudest, they aren’t afraid because they’ve been in this position before.
The criticism that Napoli shrink when the chips are down has been around since their inception, in fact it’s a criticism that’s existed for every club in Italy aside from the Milanese sides and Juventus. For Napoli however, that criticism is being torn apart as the Maurizio Sarri era rolls on.
In Sarri’s first season it was a tale of two halves. They had some signature big game wins, including 5-0 against Lazio, 4-0 away at San Siro against Milan, even 2-1 wins over Inter and Juve.
However, following a gut-wrenching 1-0 loss against eventual winners Juventus courtesy of a Simone Zaza rocket in February, the Partenopei drew to Milan and Fiorentina in consecutive weeks, as the title slipped from their grasp. A 2-0 loss at the hands of Inter and 1-0 to Spalletti’s Roma later in the season would all but shatter their Scudetto hopes.
However, this time feels different for two main reasons, the first being experience. Sarri and his side know not to get ahead of themselves in big games, as their feet seemed to go off the gas pedal in 2016 against the Bianconeri as the night dragged on. They also now have the experience to be able to put big losses behind them.
Last season, despite some poor showings in big games early on as opposed to later in the season (3-1 loss to Roma and 2-1 to Juventus), they weren’t deterred and didn’t lose to any of the big seven in the second half of the campaign. In fact, they would’ve beaten them all if not for a draw v Juve. It’s a nous that comes with experiencing big games and how you react to them.
The second is talent. This 2017-18 Napoli side is so much more talented than its predecessors. Every single player has improved under Sarri, the team know his system inside and out, and there’s a lot more depth on the bench.
In the second half of 2015-16, Sarri didn’t rotate properly and the team was burnt out by February, and it showed as their results slowed down. This team is prepared, so with mind-boggling depth in midfield and respectable choices in defence (although a new winger may be required in January) Napoli can survive.
Napoli’s two big games so far this season, against Lazio and Roma, have been different in manner, but the same in essence.
Against the Biancocelesti their resolve was tested when they went 1-0 down in the first half. However, in the second they scored a jaw dropping three goals in five minutes, each better than the last, including an insane outside of the box lob from Dries Mertens. In added time Jorginho made it 4-1, but the statement was still there. This Napoli side won’t wobble when the lights are bright.
Against Di Francesco’s side it was actually the sort of performance we don’t associate with Sarri or ‘flair’ teams. Granted there was a bit of luck with Insigne’s goal, or you could argue it’s just poor from Daniele De Rossi, but it was on the defensive side of the ball where Napoli excelled.
Roma barely had a sniff all game. Their best chance came in the form of a header from near the penalty spot, which was batted away by a scrambling Pepe Reina. The Giallorossi didn’t even have a shot on target until the 70th minute.
Usually Napoli defend through their attack constantly pressuring the entirety of their opposition. But this game showed that when the Napoli offensive isn’t clicking as expected, the defence is capable of shutting out top teams.
Next week Napoli will be able to flex their new-found confidence in big games against Manchester City and Inter. It seems like it’ll be another notch on their belt leading to lights being brighter and crowds being louder, but they won’t care.