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Napoli 0-1 Lazio: Talking points as Serie A leaders suffer first league defeat

Veselin Trajkovic in Editorial, Serie A 4 Mar 2023

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It probably had to happen sometime, somewhere, but it wasn’t very likely to happen at home against an inconsistent opponent. Yet it did. On Saturday, Napoli were beaten for the first time this season in the Serie A, at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in Naples, by Lazio, courtesy of a solitary goal, a stunner bagged by substitute Mateo Vecino for the visitors in the 67th minute.

Napoli stifled

It’s not as if Napoli didn’t have any chances to score, it’s more that those chances didn’t come nearly as frequently as they usually do for Luciano Spalletti’s team, and they weren’t quite as clear-cut. They could’ve scored once or twice with a bit of luck, but that bit of luck simply wasn’t there on the night.

Wingers Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Hirving Lozano, as well as striker Victor Osimhen, pack plenty of pace and can wreak havoc when left in a little bit of space, but the Lazio defence did not allow them that. They stayed tight, with centre-backs Patric and Alessio Romagnoli particularly close to Osimhen throughout, forcing the Nigeria international to drop deep to pick the ball up, which isn’t really a place where he can be dangerous. At 40 yards out, with the whole opposition defence (frequently midfield too) set up in front of him, there’s very little he can do. He had one good opportunity, in the 79th minute when Kvaratskhelia whipped in a rare good cross to the far post and he rose above his markers to reach it, but his header bounced of the post and the follow-up from Kim Min-jae was saved by Ivan Provedel in the Lazio goal.

As for Kvaratskhelia himself, the Georgian’s lightning-like pace was of little use this time. He was watched tirelessly by Adam Marusic, who expertly directed him to the left, seeking to prevent him from cutting inside and forcing him out wide, where the ball was constantly on his weaker left foot. There was little for Kvaratskhelia to do in those situations but attempt a cross, and more often than not, those crosses were completely harmless. If he did manage to cut inside, he would find his path blocked by Patric, Vecino or Felipe Anderson – one of them was always there to help the Lazio left-back deal with the in-demand attacker.

Lozano roamed from the right flank to the middle, stayed up close to the opposition goal and dropped deep, pressed and hung back, in and out of the box, but his contribution was overall very feeble. Therefore, it was hardly surprising when Spalletti called for him to leave the pitch after 70 minutes, sending Matteo Politano on in his place. Perhaps the 29-year-old Italy international should’ve started in the first place, but it’s far too easy to talk about that now, when the battle is over. It should be said that Politano didn’t do much either, but he can perhaps be excused to an extent as he had far less time to try and do something notable.

Lazio should certainly be commended for the way they kept one of the most dangerous teams in Europe quiet. Teams generally considered better have failed miserably in that task this season.

Complacency?

There will, of course, be talk about Napoli perhaps going into this match too light-hearted, underestimating their opposition in the light of being unbeaten in the previous 24 Serie A matches. Indeed, the only defeat they had suffered in any competition was in the final round of the Champions League group stage, when Liverpool beat them 2-0 at Anfield in a game which, as it happened, bore no significance whatsoever in the end.

Such fantastically consistent positive runs have been known to trigger overconfidence, and there were instances in this game when the Napoli players didn’t seem to be trying very hard, almost as if they felt that their mere presence on the pitch should be enough to bring victory. Their opponents obviously felt differently.

Speaking after the game, Spalletti expressed a different view, a pleasure with his players showing “a good attitude, the right application and desire.” But one has to wonder if these words were a mere choice not to criticize the players publicly. After all they’ve done this season, perhaps it would be too harsh to do so after one outing of lesser standards.

There is, on the other hand, probably something positive to have come from this defeat. It has happened in a game that competitively means absolutely nothing. If Inter Milan and/or AC Milan win their respective games against Lecce and Fiorentina, they’ll still be 15 points behind and the title race, if race it be, is still very much in Napoli’s hands. Perhaps it was good for Napoli to be reminded that they aren’t infallible, that they can be beaten, in a game with no real relevance. It should rid them of any potential complacency that may have hindered them against Lazio, making their heads clearer ahead of the more important clashes, both domestically and in the Champions League, between now and the end of the season.

Top four race

As for Lazio, this is obviously a huge triumph, which many will unfairly treat as a Napoli failure, rather than a success of Maurizio Sarri and his men. Despite having the ball at their feet for just 35% of the time, they played really well, sticking to their task and doing all the right things to close spaces down. Very comfortable with watching Napoli pass the ball around far from Provedel’s goal, they determinedly sprang into action whenever the home side moved to close in and successfully repelled attack after attack. Meanwhile, Vecino’s winning thunderbolt was a real beauty of a strike.

The reward, the three points they took back to Rome, have raised their tally to 48 and put them in second place, though probably briefly with Inter and Milan sitting just one point behind and yet to play their matches. But the victory has put some space between Lazio and city rivals Roma in fifth place on 44, Roma who face a resurgent Juventus team on Sunday in the capital.

Atalanta, in sixth place with 41, face Udinese on Saturday, and one has to wonder at this point whether there is perhaps a bit of a chance for Juventus to creep back into the race after that 15-point deduction they’ve been hit with. Sitting seventh with 35 right now, a win over Roma would probably have them hoping.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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