The Coppa Italia clash at the Stadio San Paolo could have been very different, if some crucial moments could have gone the other way. While Napoli did run out victors who will go through to the semi-finals of the competition against either Inter Milan or Fiorentina, they barely deserved to win the game by a tight 1-0 margin. They had to ride their luck big time and beat the team that has been adept at scoring late goals this season.
But this year isn’t meant for Napoli to win games by playing a bright brand of football. It has been a rather forgettable season - one that Partenopei faithful would not look back on too kindly. The side hasn’t won a game by a convincing margin since their 4-1 win over Lecce on September 22, as the season has been littered with instability at the club and unbalanced showings.
At the back of a disappointing and a rather deserved 2-0 loss to Beppe Iachini’s Fiorentina, any sort of win would have worked wonders for Rino Gattuso’s men. It would have been unfair to expect them to beat the most in-form team in the division while playing attacking football. Anything could have done a job for them and progressing into the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia will indeed do a lot to bring at least some feel-good factor back at the club for the first time in many months.
We cannot underestimate the importance of the ultras returning to the stands after suspending their protest against restrictions within the Stadio San Paolo. Napoli need their fans behind them more than ever, as there’s nothing more soul-sapping than a practically silent arena.
Gattuso’s men did benefit from Lazio missing a host of chances, including Ciro Immobile’s missed penalty. If not for the sending off of Elseid Hysaj and Lucas Leiva, things could have been different for either team. But Napoli did show grit and a tactical versatility to somehow grind the result out.
A lot of how they adapted comes from how Carlo Ancelotti added flexibility to their side. The ability to use different formations saw the midfielders play various roles and the wingers like Jose Callejon play deeper to allow the team to play three at the back shapes in Champions League games.
Gattuso had to use Arek Milik as the sole forward many times, adding an extra defender at the back while Callejon almost played as the wing-back for a vast majority of the game. Sebastiano Luperto added some extra security, while the side constantly changed from a 4-4-1 shape to three at the back. It was the adaptability that Ancelotti had brought to the side that helped them massively to win the game.
But having said that, Diego Demme enjoyed a rather impressive debut start. His performance was a reflection of exactly what the club has been missing in this whole season - that prolific ball-winner who can shield the back-four and not allow the opposition to play through the Azzurri. And in a crisis situation, the German proved crucial in helping the defence and allowed the midfield some solidity.
Stanislav Lobotka’s debut lasted a little over 20 minutes due to Hysaj’s red card. As much as it was a harsh decision on the former Celta Vigo man, who was good at recycling possession from deeper midfield in the time he played.
The win comes at the right time for Gattuso’s men. Not just because their last Serie A win came on December 22 against Sassuolo in stoppage time, but because of what is to come. They face Juventus next, with the Bianconeri now looking like a much better side than they have ever been in the Scudetto race this season.
The confidence they took from the beating the Biancocelesti, albeit in controversial circumstances, can potentially prove to be a game-changer in what is left out of a disappointing season. When fans could already be preparing to forget about the existence of this campaign, it is providing them much-needed hope and gratification. And perhaps, that is all they currently need.