By: Charlie Ryan
Saturday afternoon’s clash at the Stadio San Paolo saw title challengers Napoli and Internazionale split points in a tactically thrilling, yet goalless draw. Fresh off a decisive win over crosstown rivals Milan and a full week’s rest, Inter were in prime condition to steal a point or three at a stadium they hadn’t won in since 1993. The hosts failed to nab a point in their midweek Champions League loss vs Manchester City at the Etihad, a frustrating result that dropped them to third in their group. The draw loosens Napoli’s grip on first place, with Inter knocking on the door with 23 points, just two off the top.
- Inter have found their successor to Walter Samuel
Inter’s summer mercato was largely consumed by transfers to shore up a leaky defense that conceded 49 goals last season, the second highest of teams that finished in the top seven. Dalbert has failed to unseat Yuto Nagatomo from his starting role, Luciano Spalletti is content with using Joao Cancelo as a sub for Antonio Candreva, and Alessandro Bastoni is a work in progress. But former Sampdoria man Milan Škriniar is the summer signing that has turned things around for the Nerazzurri back line. Now nine games into the season, Inter boast one of the best defensive records in the league, conceding only five thus far. The strapping Slovakian center back was an integral piece to Marco Giampaolo’s Sampdoria defense last season, registering 35 appearances. Škriniar’s large frame complements his brute physicality and obstinacy when closing down an opponent. His aerial supremacy, aggressive tackling, and fearlessness in defense has drawn parallels to Inter’s legendary defensive stalwart Walter Samuel. Since his departure and Javier Zanetti’s retirement in 2014, the Inter defense has been lacking in character and fearsomeness. Škriniar’s speed and patience was put to the test against a technically-skilled, highly intelligent, and blistering Napoli attacking trident. The Slovakian won eight duels, seven tackles, made two clearances, and pocketed one Dries Mertens, proving once more that comparisons to his predecessor are not without merit.
- Gagliardini-Vecino Pivot Shows its Potential
Luciano Spalletti may have found a permanent midfield partnership in Roberto Gagliardini and Matías Vecino. The duo contributed greatly to Inter’s inspiring defensive performance against Italy’s hottest attacking side. Gagliardini broke down the Napoli attack outside the penalty area with strong tackling and intelligent marking. Winning seven duels and completing two interceptions and four tackles, the Atalanta loanee put a solid shift in front of the back line. Vecino’s versatility in transition was pivotal in starting counterattacks, as his quick vertical passes found Borja Valero sitting upfield, or he occasionally opted to dribble out of the defensive third on his own. The Uruguayan completed 44 of 50 attempted passes, and each of his three long balls. The pair also dropped deep to provide passing options for the defense to relieve Napoli’s suffocating press. However, they are not without their faults. Their narrow spacing and the room between the defense and the pair was at times exploited by the Partenopei high press, though such blemishes will be ironed out as the two continue to gel. Given their ages (23 and 26, respectively) and complementary styles of play, Spalletti can rely on the two midfield engineers for years to come.
- Champions League may hinder Napoli’s title chances
Although Maurizio Sarri rested two thirds of his best midfield trio in Wednesday’s defeat to Manchester City in preparation for Saturday’s meeting with Inter, it was not enough for them to edge their fellow title challengers. Had Napoli a full week’s rest, they would have likely extended their perfect season with another victory. At this point in the Champions League group stage, the Napoli boss will have come to the sobering realization that hopes of European glory must be axed for the sake of domestic aspirations. Sarri’s brand of soccer is the most exhausting on the planet, thus the midweek UCL matches leave his men comparatively more fatigued than other sides. What’s more, Napoli lacks offensive and defensive depth to meet the demands of simultaneously mounting a title challenge and succeeding in increasingly difficult European play. If Sarri is to fully dedicate his efforts to the league, he will quietly bow out of the UCL. The way it stands, his pragmatism may end the Juventus hegemony and bring the Partenopei their first Scudetto since the golden era of Maradona.