The heavyweight battle of the season so far took place on Saturday as first hosted second with Inter travelling to Napoli. Both teams were looking to lay down a marker and secure themselves as title favourites.
While the game ended scoreless, it was a surprisingly exciting affair with Napoli’s front three unable to break down Inter’s defensive unit. Here’s what we learned as both teams stayed top of the table.
Napoli tire as games wear on
While it is still uncertain whether Napoli have the legs to keep up with the title race all season, one of their few visible flaws as a team is how they tire towards the end of matches. Maurizio Sarri’s team’s flowing attacking play is at times irresistible, and their constant press stifling for the opposition, but what will worry the manager is how their performance in the last few games has tended to fade later on, only creating one major opportunity in the last 20 minutes against Inter. By that stage, both teams seemed to have settled for a point.
While not a glaring problem by any means at this stage, it will be interesting to see how Napoli cope later in the season when fixtures such as Coppa Italia and European knockout games add to the domestic calendar. Sarri himself has admitted prioritising Serie A is key to his side’s success this year:
“To be honest, I see my side more motivated to play in Serie A than in Europe.
“The Champions League is tiring, but it’s a wonderful thing to take part in and we ought to give it our best.”
What may motivate the Napoli players even more is that they haven’t won Serie A since 1990/91, with a certain Diego Maradona in the side.
Reina and Handanovic are unsung heroes
Much has been said about Napoli and Inter as solid defensive units. Rightly so, as they are the best defensive teams in Serie A this season. The likes of Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, has been so impressive this year teams such as Chelsea have been strongly linked with the Senegalese.
However, the stars of Saturday’s match were by far the goalkeepers. Pepe Reina made some superb point blank stops from the likes of Borja Valero in the second half, and the only time the ‘keeper was beaten, fellow Spaniard Raul Albiol was there with a goal-line clearance.
Samir Handanovic meanwhile, provided save of the match and one of the finest of the season when he kept out Dries Mertens’ effort from barely twelve yards with a superb reaction save. The Slovenian’s clean sheet was made even more impressive considering Napoli have averaged 4 goals per game at home this season.
Even opposition manager, Sarri, was full of praise:
“Handanovic is an extraordinary goalkeeper, at the moment one of the best in Europe, so it was only normal that he was extraordinary tonight.”
Both teams are by far the favourites to challenge Juventus’ crown
The Serie A table pretty much reflects the story at this point in the season. Unbeaten Napoli are first on 25 points, and Inter only two points behind, with both looking favourites to break Juventus’ domestic dominance this year. The current champions have looked far less convincing defensively with the loss of Leonardo Bonucci, a change of system, and Gianluigi Buffon’s shaky performances meaning the Old Lady are currently in third, albeit only 3 points behind. Roma look less likely to launch a title assault this year, and AC Milan’s revolution is still to find its feet.
While Napoli continue to improve their already impressive attacking style, Inter have added subtle changes over the summer. Their biggest win so far is Mauro Icardi’s performances being so good, that his fallout with the Inter ultras is finally starting to subside.