Football Italia diary | Napoli lead the way, Inter resurgent, Italy drop to World Cup play-offs

by | Dec 1, 2021 11:36

Italy failed to qualify directly for the World Cup, Napoli led Serie A ahead of Milan and a resurgent Inter, while high profile coaches struggled and new heroes emerged in a fascinating November.

Words: Stephen Kasiewicz

Title race intensifies

Napoli broke clear from the chasing pack to finish November three points clear of Milan at the top of the Serie A standings.

The Partenopei still lost their unbeaten record, falling to a first defeat of the campaign in a pulsating 3-2 reversal at Inter on November 21 in which talismanic striker Victor Osimhen sustained a serious facial injury.

The Nigerian attacker was ruled out for three months after colliding with Inter central defender Milan Skriniar.

Veteran Dries Mertens replaced Osimhen and scored two sublime goals as Napoli recovered magnificently to sweep Lazio aside 4-0 in a wonderful display of passing football. Midfielders Piotr Zielinski and Fabian Ruiz were also on target wearing shirts featuring an image of club legend Diego Maradona. The world’s greatest ever player was also honoured with the unveiling of a statue before the Lazio game in the stadium which bears his name.

Mertens: ‘Now Napoli must always play like this’

Milan showed signs of defensive frailty in November as they conceded a combined seven goals in consecutive Serie A defeats, first away at Fiorentina (4-3) and in a stunning upset against Sassuolo at the San Siro (3-1). Despite losing their first two matches this term, Stefano Pioli’s men were just three points adrift of Napoli in second place as the month ended

Meanwhile, Inter went undefeated in all competitions during the month and surged back into Scudetto contention. The Nerazzurri had to be content with a point in a wildly entertaining Milan derby that finished 1-1, but followed it up by ending Napoli’s unbeaten league record with a thrilling 3-2 triumph and coasting to a two goal away win over Venezia.

Fuelled by the rampaging runs of Nicolo Barella and Ivan Perisic and the excellent goalscoring form of Edin Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez, Inter were just a point behind Milan and only four short of league leaders Napoli.

Inzaghi: ‘People thought it was a transitional Inter season’

Atalanta were level with Inter on 31 points in fourth position after a superb November which included a first victory against Juventus in Turin for 30 years. Duvan Zapata claimed the only goal as the Bergamo side won away at the Bianconeri, having been waiting since 1989 to win at the home of Juventus.

Gian Piero Gasperini’s side continued to enthrall and entertain, scoring freely in the process. Atalanta defeated basement side Cagliari 2-1 in Sardinia, smashed five past Spezia in a comprehensive 5-2 win and rounded out the month by putting four goals past Venezia at the Gewiss Stadium.

Italy struggle for World Cup qualification

Euro 2020 winners Italy looked a pale shadow of the side which claimed a glorious triumph at Wembley as they failed to seal an automatic place at the World Cup.

The Azzurri squandered two excellent chances to secure direct qualification for Qatar 2022 during the month of November, drawing in Rome against Switzerland and limping to an uninspiring stalemate with Northern Ireland in Belfast.

Bereft of the high tempo, pressing offensive style evident at the Euros, Roberto Mancini’s side face a play-off to avoid missing out on the World Cup for a second successive time.

Mancini remains bullish Italy will qualify and even win in Qatar, but they must overcome North Macedonia at home on March 24, 2022, and then take on either Portugal or Turkey for a place in the finals.

Mancini on Italy’s play-off draw: ‘It could have been better’

Italy were unrecognisable at times as they laboured against the Swiss. Jorginho sent a late penalty high over the bar at the Stadio Olimpico in a tense draw, Silvan Widmer sending Switzerland ahead and Giovanni Di Lorenzo heading in an equaliser in the first half.

They were then well below par at times in Belfast as a spirited Northern Ireland side almost caused a shock. The goalless draw again highlighted the Azzurri’s lack of a prolific striker with Mancini even considering a call-up for Cagliari’s Brazilian-born Joao Pedro for the play-off in March.

Testing times for big name coaches

Antonio Conte’s appointment as Tottenham Hotspur head coach was supposed to signal an immediate change of fortunes for the north London club.

The Europa Conference League is hardly a measure of success yet after overcoming Vitesse Arnhem in his first game in charge, a second-string Spurs side (albeit with Harry Kane in attack) were humbled by Slovenian minnows NS Mura.

A goalless league draw against Everton and narrow victory over Leeds United completed a rather lacklustre month. The infamously explosive Conte no doubt had words with his players as he faces the mammoth task of transforming the perennial underachievers into a ‘top club.’

Conte: ‘I must make Tottenham a top team for a top club’

Milan legend Andriy Shevchenko was an unexpected choice as Genoa coach following five years in charge of the Ukranian national team.

US private investment firm 777 Partners completed a takeover of the Ligurian club and placed their faith in the 45-year-old despite the fact he had no club coaching experience.

Roma teenager Felix Afena-Gyan ruined Shevchenko’s debut in the Luigi Ferraris dugout with a sensational double to condemn the oldest club in Italy to a sixth defeat of the campaign.

Genoa remained in the relegation zone after a goalless draw at Udinese to end November as Shevchenko endured a testing start in his new position.

Italian success at Ballon d’Or

Lionel Messi was awarded France Football’s golden ball for a record seventh time, while Italy’s Jorginho placed third and Azzurri shot-stopper Gianluigi Donnarumma picked up the prize for best goalkeeper.

PSG forward Messi was a controversial winner as many believed Bayern Munich goal machine Robert Lewandowski, who was runner-up, deserved first place at the ceremony held in Paris.

Ballon d’Or: Italy takes centre stage despite Messi win

The yearly popularity contest has often ignored Italian players. However, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho, who won the Champions League with his club and Euro 2020 with the Azzurri, was rightly recognised for an outstanding campaign as the third best player in the world.

Donnarumma received the Yashin trophy as the No 1 ‘keeper and was voted the 10th best player overall.

Three more Euro 2020 winners were ranked in the top 30: Juventus defensive duo Giorgio Chiellini (13th) and Lorenzo Bouncci (14th) and Inter midfielder Nicolo Barella (joint 26th). Milan’s Danish defender Simon Kjaer was 16th and Inter’s Lautaro Martinez joint 21st.

Unlikely heroes

The miraculous ascent of Junior Messias from Serie D to Champions League match winner is almost unrivalled in Italian football.

Messias arrived in Turin from Belo Horizonte a decade ago and worked as a delivery driver in an appliance store. The Brazilian began playing amateur football and progressed from the fourth tier to Serie A with Crotone in only six seasons.

Milan signed the attacking midfielder from the relegated Rossoblu in August after an impressive first season in the top flight, when he netted nine times in 36 games.

Injury prevented the 30-year-old from making any kind of impact at the Rossoneri until November 24. But as a second half substitute Messias silenced the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano by scoring a late header to clinch a vital Champions League victory for Milan at Atletico Madrid.

Messias: ‘Dedicated to those who believed in me’

Ghanaian teenager Felix Afena-Gyan meanwhile wasted no time in making a name for himself by scoring a spectacular brace for Roma at Genoa in just his third first-team appearance for the capital club.

Jose Mourinho was clearly impressed with the 18-year-old’s six goals for the Giallorossi Primavera and threw him in at the deep end at the Luigi Ferraris Stadium.

Who is Roma revelation Felix Afena-Gyan?

Mourinho had bemoaned a lack of depth in this squad, but Afena-Gyan seized his opportunity as a second half substitute. He showed admirable composure to convert with a cool side foot finish from Henrik Mkhitaryan’s through ball and then claimed an astonishing second, curling beyond Salvatore Sirigu with an expertly timed curling shot from distance.

The youngster was rewarded with a new pair of boots from his coach, although an alleged racist comment was made as he received the gift. Afena-Gyan however dismissed the incident, saying there was no ‘racial intent’ to the remark.

Serie A as it stood on November 30


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