That a 4-1 victory over one of Europe’s best outfits could be bittersweet would be inconceivable in normal circumstances, but the last few weeks have been anything but normal for Napoli. Saturday’s first-half destruction of La Dea highlighted how far the Southerners have come in recent months, but that impressive improvement has been tempered by the fallout from the club’s decision not to travel to Turin to face Juventus. On this evidence, the Partenopei would have been more than a match for The Old Lady, but that will be of little comfort if a dubious points deduction ends up derailing a shot at the Scudetto.
Truth is stranger than fiction for the Neapolitans, who have been on the cusp of a third league title for much of the last decade. Their nearly men tag has been well-earned, with four runner-up finishes since 2012. The most notable of those came under Maurizio Sarri, who guided his hometown team to a record haul of 91 points during 2017-18. However, they still finished four behind an all-conquering Juventus, and that is exactly the number of points Napoli lost on their bitter rival as a result of the Serie A disciplinary committee’s controversial ruling.
However, there is hope that Gattuso’s charges could overcome that hammer blow and contend at the top of the table. The addition of Victor Osimhen has added a new dimension going forward, with the Nigerian proving the perfect foil for a deep cast of lithe creators. Previous record signing Hirving Lozano has been the main beneficiary so far, with his four goals equaling his total from all of last season. Those two combined to devastating effect on Saturday and should continue to wreak havoc up and down the peninsula.
Further back, a once-shaky rearguard has tightened up considerably. Sam Lammers’ consolation strike at San Paolo has been the only goal conceded so far, with Kalidou Koulibaly living up to his reputation as one of the best center-backs around. The Senegalese man-mountain is the safety valve that allows Napoli to execute their suffocating high press, which did not allow a normally fluent Atalanta attack to build up any sense of rhythm.
Even though the Partenopei are well-versed in the type of coordinated harrying that has become commonplace at the elite level, they are just as comfortable sitting back and waiting to pick their opponent off on the counter. That versatility would have made them an extremely dangerous foe for Juve, who would have surely tried to dominate the ball and territory at the Allianz Stadium.
After June’s famous Coppa Italia conquest, being denied another opportunity to get one over on their archnemesis could have easily distracted Napoli ahead of their meeting with La Dea, but their emphatic response in the face of adversity speaks to a mental fortitude that will serve them well for the challenges ahead. This promises to be the most open title race in years, with The Old Lady and fellow favorites Inter both stumbling out of the blocks. Gattuso and company are playing with house money in a game that has already been rigged against them, but that reality will make failure to win the jackpot even more painful.
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