“We'll see who can fight Juventus.” So said Lazio Coach Vladimir Petkovic on Tuesday, describing his side's visit to Napoli as if it were an eliminator bout for a world title shot.
He also stressed that both sides would “continue to fight for the top positions whatever the result,” but if the following night's match had been a boxing contest, Napoli would have been the fighter climbing on to the top rope and soaking up the audience's adoration at the end, whilst Lazio lay bloodied, bruised and dazed on the canvas.
Would it have ended differently if Miroslav Klose hadn't fessed up to slapping the ball into the net in the fourth minute? Probably not. Not with Napoli in this kind of shape. Edinson Cavani rattled in a hat-trick of typically emphatic strikes to make it 3-0 with half an hour still to play at the Stadio San Paolo, and if their finishing had been a touch sharper, the Vesuviani would have won by five or six.
“This Napoli, without doubt, is the anti-Juve,” read the opening line of the Gazzetta dello Sport's match report, and even at this very early stage, it's hard to disagree. Survey the Serie A standings and you'll see the two clubs sat side by side at the summit with exactly identical records, already four points clear of Inter and Lazio, five ahead of Roma and seven in front of Milan.
One by one the obstructions which prevented the Partenopei being viable Scudetto contenders in the past have been removed. The Champions League, which took up all their energy and focus last season, is no longer an issue. Nor is squad depth, a point illustrated by them being able to summon not one but two speedy, skilful and hungry young forwards, in the form of Lorenzo Insigne and Eduardo Vargas, from the bench against Lazio. How Aquile centre-backs Michael Ciani and Andre Dias – already ran ragged by Cavani and Co – must have groaned internally.
Walter Mazzarri's squad is now so strong that he could afford to drop his entire first XI for the Europa League opener against AIK Solna last week, and still run out 4-0 winners. “If I'm not mistaken, we've always scored two or three goals regardless of the tactical structure of the opposing team,” mused the former Sampdoria boss when deconstructing Sunday's frustrating goalless draw with 10 man Catania. And he wasn't mistaken.
That aberration in Sicily and the Super Cup defeat to Juventus aside, Napoli have blown every opponent they've faced this season out of the water.
In terms of their tactics and formation, little has changed, but just because you know what they're going to do doesn't mean you can stop them doing it. There can little doubt either, that the Marek Hamsik-Goran Pandev-Cavani triad is the best front line in Italy at present.
Hamsik is looking sharper than his famous Mohican, Pandev's transition from bit part player to fully fledged member of the three tenors has been seamless, and Cavani? The standing ovation he was given by the San Paolo crowd as he stood with his head in his hands, ruing a missed penalty on Wednesday, told you everything you need to know about him.
El Matador now has 99 Serie A goals, 72 Napoli goals, and tops this season’s Capocannoniere charts with five to his name already. So perhaps the question shouldn't be are Napoli the anti-Juve? Perhaps it should be – is there such a thing as the anti-Cavani?
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