It took its time, but slowly but surely, normal service has been resumed in Serie A. Napoli’s 0-0 draw at Inter saw Juventus return to the summit for the first time since the beginning of October and indeed the only time they’ve held top spot without the presence of the Partenopei this season.
It’s the moment that all neutrals - Italian football fans or otherwise - have long dreaded; that cursory glance at the Serie A table and seeing the Bianconeri sitting atop once more. You can almost hear the collective groan around the world, and to compound matters further, the new League leaders also have a game in hand.
There was an air of inevitability about all this; that Napoli would relinquish control, it would just be a matter of when and where. Many felt their squad simply wasn’t deep enough to go toe to toe against a team with revenue that dwarfs their own by some €200m. For it to be Inter, of all teams, to do Juve a favour makes it all that much harder to stomach for the Napoli faithful.
Napoli dominated the home side at San Siro, yet a combination of predictable play and inept finishing could prove fatal in their hopes of winning the title. How costly could Lorenzo Insigne’s miss, the forward opting for aesthetics over assuredness by trying to lob Samir Handanovic when through on goal, be in the wider scheme of things? Could it be the local hero’s arrogance that ultimately keeps the title in the north of the peninsula for another year?
The pressure to be the ‘anti-Juve’ is clearly getting to Maurizio Sarri, who was particularly frosty when interviewed by Mediaset following the game. The Coach threatened to end the interview early if asked about the Bianconeri a further time yet promptly walked away regardless.
Sarri’s opposite number, Luciano Spalletti, was refreshingly honest in his post-match interview, insinuating his side doesn’t possess the calibre of players to incorporate the kind of football that’s made Napoli everyone’s second team. Bar a Milan Skriniar header, which clipped the post, Inter failed to create a chance in the 90 minutes and looked bereft of not just creativity and confidence but also leadership and genuine quality.
Defensively Inter are doing just fine; they’ve got the third strongest in the League, only behind the top two, and they haven’t conceded a single goal in three matches against Juve and Napoli. However, it’s at the other end that they’re limping along. Since putting five past Chievo in early December, they’ve scored only eight times; Mauro Icardi hasn’t scored in nearly three months.
Ivan Perisic, who started the season so brilliantly, has seen his form fall off a cliff and hasn’t provided a single assist since late November. Antonio Candreva is on a similar run and hasn’t scored this season, nor has the winger provided a meaningful contribution since the 3-1 home defeat to Udinese at the back end of last year.
Spalletti, by his own admission, is out of ideas on how to improve the attacking potency with current crop of players. Yet he’s also aware that failure to lead the club into the Champions League next season will see the Nerazzurri’s current frugal stance in the transfer market continue this summer.
With Inter set to play Milan, Juventus and Lazio in the next two months, the odds of the Beneamata making Europe’s elite competition look remote. But if Spalletti is to make Inter into a more attacking outfit next season, by hook or by crook, he will have to cajole his misfiring troops into finding the target.