Milan late show keeps them in distant contact with Napoli’s ‘Martians’
The celebrations at San Siro were of relief that runaways Napoli did not enter the World Cup break with a double-digit lead
It was the 91st minute at San Siro when Milan scored the goal that might have rescued the Serie A title race. Technically the Fiorentina defender Nicola Milenkovic scored it for them – deflecting Aster Vranckx’s cross into his own net – but few were dwelling on the fine details as Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400, a German dance track older than some players on the pitch, blared out across the public address.
A crowd of 73,000 danced and sighed with relief. Milenkovic’s own goal secured a 2-1 win and kept Milan ‘only’ eight points behind Napoli at the top. The league leaders hold a double-digit advantage over every other side in the division heading into the World Cup break.
Napoli deserve every bit of their advantage, having played the best football in Italy this season by a distance. On Saturday they collected their 11th consecutive league win, beating Udinese 3-2 in a game less close than that scoreline implies. They were three goals up after an hour against opponents who had previously beaten Roma 4-0 and Inter 3-1.
It was yet another occasion to marvel at the outlandish talent of Victor Osimhen. He scored the first goal with a piece of classic centre-forward play, attacking the space behind his marker and glancing a header home from Eljif Elmas’s cross. The timing of his run and leap were everything. Osimhen appeared a foot taller than Jaka Bijol; in truth, he stands a couple of inches shorter.
Napoli’s second goal was a scintillating team move, Piotr Zielinski playing the ball out from the left corner of his own penalty box and finding Osimhen in the middle of the park. The forward turned and took two Udinese players with him as he drove toward the right wing before wrongfooting them with a no-look backheel to Hirving Lozano.
He, in turn, angled inwards before switching play back to Zielinski, who had run the length of the pitch. The Polish midfielder took one touch to wrongfoot the player tracking him and another to settle the ball before sweeping a shot into the bottom right corner of the net.
That was the 31st minute, and Elmas added a third goal for Napoli in the 58th, converting André-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s through-pass after beating Bijol one-on-one. Still, Napoli came forward, and only some sharp saves by the Udinese goalkeeper Marco Silvestri kept the margin at three.
Udinese’s counter-punch did not arrive until the 79th minute, though it was another goal to marvel at. Roberto Pereyra chipped the ball in from the left, Isaac Success weighted a pass just right with his chest and Ilija Nestorovski drilled a first-time half-volley into the bottom of the net.
Three minutes later, Udinese scored again. Kim Min-Jae blundered to get caught in possession by Lazar Samardzic, who punished the mistake fully with a ruthless finish. A quick-fire double might have induced panic in a less confident side. Napoli calmly steadied the ship and sailed home. Udinese managed one further shot in the game, and that from outside the box.
Victory meant Napoli finished this season’s first chapter on 41 points. They have won 13 out of 15 matches – something that no other club besides Juventus had ever done in the history of Serie A. The Bianconeri have, admittedly, done it four times. Unsurprisingly, they finished top on each occasion. (One of those, it should be said, was the 2005-06 season for which they would later have their title stripped.)
Journalists continued to ask at full-time whether Napoli were ready to start talking about themselves as potential Scudetto winners for the first time since 1990. Frankly, at this point, it would be ludicrous to pretend otherwise. Nobody knows how a World Cup interruption will impact this season but at this moment Napoli are clear favourites for the plain and obvious reason that they have been much better than anyone else.
“It makes no difference to me if you talk about the Scudetto or not,” said Luciano Spalletti on Saturday. “I know that there are 69 points left to play for this season and that is an ocean. The only thing for us to do is to keep our gaze clear in the fog that other people want to create.”
He thanked his squad for “playing like Martians” but the manager deserves just as much credit for keeping them on track even when key performers have been absent. Saturday’s game was the third in a row for Napoli without Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the breakout star of this Serie A season, yet his replacement Elmas rivalled Osimhen for man of the match, overlapping fluidly with another squad player, Mathías Olivera, who was filling in for Mário Rui at left-back.
Contrary to interrupting his team’s rhythm, Spalletti said he was looking forward to the World Cup giving his players a chance to rest and get together for a midseason training camp. Only five are heading to Qatar. Osimhen’s Nigeria and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s Georgia both failed to qualify, while others, such as Mário Rui for Portugal, were simply overlooked.
Spalletti’s perspective is not shared by everyone. The Lazio manager, Maurizio Sarri, told reporters last week that he would likely not even watch a World Cup that he described as an “insult to football”, adulterating an entire season in his mind.
His team entered into the break on a less positive note, beaten 3-0 by Juventus. Lazio were the one other team who could have stayed within eight points of Napoli, but instead were leapfrogged by their opponents. Who would have dared to predict that Juventus would reach the World Cup in third place, after they opened the campaign with two wins in their first seven games?
Six consecutive clean sheets have allowed a rapid ascent, and performances are starting to catch up to results. The gradual return of Federico Chiesa, who set up the third goal off the bench against Lazio, offers further optimism for them of a stronger second part to the campaign.
They are not the only ones who have picked up momentum in recent weeks. Inter finished their year with an impressive 3-2 win away to Atalanta, giving them six wins from their last seven. The problem for all of them, as Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri pointed out, is that Napoli are setting an impossible pace, on track to hit 52 points by the season’s midway stage.
It was left to the Milan director Paolo Maldini to strike a defiant note. “Of course we believe we can catch Napoli,” he said after his team’s last-gasp win over Fiorentina. “When we played the derby last year we were seven points behind Inter and then we managed to win. We know very well that it’s not easy to keep up this rhythm all the way to the end.”
The familiar sound of a two-decades-old dance track at San Siro on Sunday evening was a reminder of the enthusiasm that swept Milan to their first title in 11 years last season, and a warning that they have not given up on defending it just yet.