Gennaro Gattuso painted the Saturday night match as a test for the upcoming Champions League Round of 16, pointing to the similarities in playing style between Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo and Barcelona. It was a stretch, but had some truth to it, so we might see the Napoli offside trap play a crucial part at Camp Nou.
This meeting between two of the Peninsula’s most exciting attacks was unlikely to skimp on emotion and chances at both ends. Despite the forecast for a high-scoring affair, the domestic fates of both clubs were already decided before kick-off, leaving little to play for at the San Paolo. Nevertheless, Napoli and Sassuolo fulfilled expectations in a pulsating encounter that demonstrated why the visitors have become Serie A’s Cinderella side, while an erratic home team can look forward to a bright future under Gattuso.
Few expected these squads to be where they were heading into Saturday night’s match-up. Sassuolo had become accustomed to finishing in the bottom half of the table since their debut top-flight campaign in 2013-14, after the initial heights of a Europa League run under Eusebio Di Francesco had dissipated. Meanwhile, Napoli established themselves as a consistent challenger to Juve’s throne over the past few years.
The Neroverdi’s unlikely rise is largely down to the brilliant work of Roberto De Zerbi, whose forward-thinking outlook has drawn the admiration of none other than Pep Guardiola. Even though Napoli came into Week 36 as close to 18th-placed Lecce as they were to the top of the table, Gattuso also deserves credit for turning around a club that was a shambles both on and off the field before he took over in December. Illustrious predecessors Carlo Ancelotti and Maurizio Sarri were unable to lift a major trophy with the Neapolitans, which Gattuso did at the first time of asking in the Coppa Italia Final against Juventus.
That epic night against The Old Lady was a reminder of how an in-form Napoli can be a match for anyone in Europe. They were similarly inspired in the first half against the Neroverdi, breaking through the visitors’ midfield press to repeatedly threaten Andrea Consigli’s goal. By the break, the Partenopei deserved much more than their slender 1-0 lead.
Yet, the second stanza confirmed that Napoli’s rehabilitation under Gattuso is far from complete. The crisp interchanges of the first 45 minutes were replaced by a laxness in possession that let Sassuolo grow into the game. Elseid Hysaj looked far less comfortable containing the lively Domenico Berardi than he did charging upfield from an unfamiliar left-back role. In midweek, VAR had condemned the hosts to a contentious defeat at Parma, with two questionable penalty decisions going against Gattuso’s men. Yet, the technology saved them here, ruling out no less than four Sassuolo goals for offside.
Even in defeat, Sassuolo can take encouragement from their improved second half performance. Their thrilling eight-match unbeaten run after the lockdown will go down as one of the high points in a glorious recent history for the club. Napoli’s Serie A showings this season are unlikely to be remembered as fondly, but all will be forgiven if they can pair their Coppa triumph with a deep run in the Champions League.
Gattuso has not cured Napoli’s Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, but the fight and organization they showed to manage the closing stages of Saturday’s triumph bodes well for the impending clash against Barcelona. Sassuolo’s transformation into one of Europe’s brightest attacking outfits would have seemed impossible just a few short years ago. A Napoli victory at the Camp Nou could be deemed similarly far-fetched, giving Gattuso the chance to end a tumultuous campaign in a blaze of glory.