Earlier this week, former Napoli boss and current Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri declared his preference for the Premier League over Serie A stating “In Serie A after 20 minutes 2-0 the match is finished.” Well it doesn’t appear his former team and replacement manager Carlo Ancelotti got the memo. Last week, down 1-0 to Lazio, Napoli found another gear, ratcheted up the intensity, and brought home a 1-2 victory on the road at the Stadio Olimpico.
This week, Napoli was faced with a rebuilding Milan side playing in their first game of the season after a postponement due to the horrific bridge collapse in Genoa that left 43 dead. Last week all Serie A games took a moment of silence to respect those that had been lost and this week special t-shirts were worn during the pre-match ceremonies in remembrance. The game had a lot of buildup with multiple intriguing pre-match story lines.
Carlo Ancelotti would be facing not only his former team where he won so much as both a player and a coach, but doing so against one of his former players Gennaro Gattuso, who took over the AC Milan bench early last season. Then we have Gonzalo Higuain, the Argentine national who broke the Serie A single season goal record with Napoli returning to face his former club as the central attacking figure in a redesigned Milan attack. Finally, harsh comments between club president Aurelio De Laurentiis and the Metropolitan Council of Naples hit a new low in their relationship as they continue to battle over stadium rights and refurbishment.
Due to the reconstruction efforts ongoing at the Stadio San Paulo, sections were closed off reducing the number of fans that could attend the match but that would not deter the partenopei faithful who were vocal to the last. However, none of the pre-match story lines and intrigue would live up to the game itself.
Last week, an emotionally charged Allan roared to his feet after a defensive play that helped seal the win against SS Lazio. This week, he came out with the same intensity, brilliantly stealing the ball away and moving up the pitch to create scoring chances and nearly scoring himself in the 5′ off a nice pass from José Callejón initially organized by Mario Rui. Though Napoli seemed to have the better quality early on, AC Milan was resilient, and a Suso crossing pass would find the head of Fabio Borini who dropped it into the middle to a well positioned Giacomo Bonaventura who fired it past David Ospina for the first score of the match. Napoli would continue to create opportunities throughout the first half, most notably Callejón in the 39′ and Arkadiusz Milik in the 4′ of added time just prior to the half but would not find an equalizer, going into the locker room down 1-0.
Unlike last week’s victory which saw Napoli start the second half with the same intensity as they finished the first, they came out of the locker room a bit stagnant and AC Milan, to their credit, took advantage with ball possession moving Napoli players around the pitch like chess pieces with crisp passes until Davide Calabria found an opportunity raising their tally to 2-0 in the 49′. As if awoken out of a daze with a bucket of ice water, Napoli responded with refreshed vigor and minutes later Piotr Zielinski tallied his first goal of the season in the 53′, cutting Milan’s lead in half. Zielinski would again have another quality opportunity to score but the shot went wide of the goal. Continuing to mount pressure on a susceptible Milan defense, Zielinski would get his second of the match in the 67′ after a poor effort by Gianluigi Donnarumma who dove to his left as the shot rolled past him into the corner of the net.
Wanting to preserve the tie but simultaneously go for the win, Ancelotti made a couple of key tactical substitutions replacing the likes of Marek Hamšík and Piotr Zielinski with Dries Mertens and Amadou Diawara respectively and deploying them into a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2, switching from the favored 4-3-3.
With Mertens occupying a central attacking position behind Milik, and Diawara and Allan providing a defensive midfield presence accompanied with offensive passes through the lines, this Napoli squad takes on a whole new persona looking quite lethal in attack. The tactical switch paid dividends as Diawara fitted a tight pass over a defender’s boot to a waiting Mertens who calmly dropped the ball into the back of the net giving Napoli an impressive come from behind 3-2 victory in the 80′.
For fans that thought the absence of Sarri and his style of football would mean the end of exciting games at the Stadio San Paulo, this squad under Carlo Ancelotti has something to say.