Straight from the dark heart of Italy
RESULTS Fri 17 Feb Internazionale 0-3 Bologna; Fiorentina 0-3 Napoli Sat 18 Feb Juventus 3-1 Catania Sun 19 Feb Lecce 4-1 Siena; Novara 0-0 Atalanta; Genoa 0-1 Chievo; Cesena 1-3 Milan; Roma 1-0 Parma; Udinese 0-0 Cagliari
Napoli have had one thing on their minds all year: the Champions League. Their first aim was to put in a decent display in the group stages, but drawing at Manchester City and holding Bayern Munich at home gave them the belief that in a one-off situation they could make waves in the competition.
And so it proved: beating City at the San Paolo all but saw Walter Mazzarri’s side through to the knock-out round, with qualification mathematically secured at Villarreal in a routine win – although routine may not be the right word, what with Mazzarri getting sent to the stands for impeding a home player inside the Napoli technical area.
That crime means the jack-in-the-box coach is suspended for both legs of the last–16 meeting with Chelsea, which might mean his players drop their standards: never content with what he sees, the tetchy Tuscan is constantly berating anyone in earshot just to keep them on their toes. However, even he must have allowed himself to take some satisfaction from Friday’s league performance.
It's only two years since their opponents Fiorentina were in a similar position to Napoli – preparing for a glamour Champions League knock-out tie, in their case with with Bayern Munich. They've since fallen on hard times and Napoli hardly had to break sweat to run out 3-0 winners.
The Viola are no more than workmanlike, but Napoli took few chances after going ahead inside three minutes. Using the match as a dress rehearsal in the defensive duties they may have to employ on Tuesday, they recorded a fourth consecutive clean sheet.
However, it was the form of the Holy Trinity of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi that would have raised the hopes of the Neapolitan support days before meeting the Blues. Cavani had a 100% hit-rate with his two shots, bringing his tally to 15 in the league for the season – while after missing an open goal from a diving header, Lavezzi found redemption with a snaking and then powerful run before dispatching the third late on.
Obviously the colour purple has a galvanising effect on Cavani. When he was at Palermo back in 2007, he scored his first Serie A goal against Fiorentina; then on the opening day of the 2010-11 season he repeated the feat on his Napoli debut at the Artemio Franchi stadium.
The opening goal highlighted the importance of Mazzarri’s three stars remaining in perfect sync: Lavezzi turned inside on the edge of the area to find Hamsik, who in turn flicked a perfect pass into the path of El Matador to deliver the coup de grace. Hamsik and Cavani then combined to produce the second – this time the
spiky-haired Slovak's raking crossfield pass meant the Uruguayan needed
only to look up and drive home a low shot.
Mazzari wasn’t showing it, but he couldn’t wait to withdraw the pair from the fray and from then on it was left to Lavezzi to run amok: El Pocho's quick movement and mazy runs will worry Chelsea in the San Paolo bear-pit.
It's not even as if Napoli are a three-man show: Gokham Inler has rediscovered his form in the centre of the pitch, not only offering some neat passing but also tidying up in front of the back three.
With the attacking trident on its game, Mazzarri might have worried about his defence, but captain Paolo Cannavaro was as secure as his elder brother Fabio ever was. Miguel Britos offers a calm head in place of the erratic Salvatore Aronica. Third backline boy Hugo Campaganaro limped off in the early stages in Florence, but the Argentine was replaced by Gianluca Grava whose very existence on the pitch is to win the ball and clear his lines. This no-frills approach at the back, allied to a rich vein of extravagance in attack, could make it another memorable night at the San Paolo.
While Napoli were walking it at Fiorentina and looking forward to continental competition, Inter were sliding down the league past them as their season continues to crumble.
On another evening of listening to the San Siro chanting Jose Mourinho’s name, president Massimo Moratti legged it with 25 minutes remaining rather than stand another minute of a disjointed, listless display. While Claudio Ranieri’s tactics baffled, 16th-placed Bologna scored two unanswered first-half goals before cantering to a 3-0 result.
After losing to bottom-placed Novara the previous week, Ranieri had confidently announced that he could finally play the system he had always wanted to as he ordered the players to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
However, with Diego Forlan and Wesley Sneijder confused as to whether they were required to provide any defensive cover or remain in advanced positions, the coach solved that problem by pushing both of them out to the wings – which led to Sneijder sulking on the right flank and Forlan lost in a cloud of self-doubt on the left.
It was painful to watch, not only for Moratti but the disgruntled fans, who needed little encouragement to provide a vocal pointer to whom they think should be on the bench.
The first question is, would Mourinho want a return to the club of the walking dead? The second questions is, would Moratti actually green-light some decent signings? New faces are desperately needed, as anyone under the age of 30 – such as Sneijder – wants out, while the rest should be shown the door.
Less than two years after Mourinho's groundbreaking treble, it's time to start all over again for the former masters of Serie A and Europe, and now their only realistic hope is not to suffer further humiliation at Marseille on Wednesday. If not, then Moratti will looking at hiring a fifth man to banish the sound of the only name the fans love to sing.
2 - 1 to Napoli. Inter to lose 3-2. Hopefully, both still have plenty to play for in the second leg.
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