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Euro Football Weekend Round-Up By Zach Lowy

Each Monday, I’ll be writing a weekly round-up on this season’s action at BET Central, including the managers on the hot seat and the coaches who are delivering the goods for their clubs, the young prospects who are putting themselves in the spotlight, and the players and teams who are making the headlines or flying under the radar in the 2021/22 season.

European Football

The 14th matchday of the Serie A campaign kicked off with a relegation six-pointer between the two bottom-ranking sides in the league: whilst Leonardo Pavoletti opened the scoring for Cagliari in the 73rd minute, Sampdoria loanee Federico Bonazzoli equalized in extra time to snatch a point for the visitors and keep Salernitana level on 8 points with Cagliari. Saturday’s action saw Sampdoria erase an early deficit and defeat the high-flying Hellas Verona, Empoli pull off a late comeback victory against Fiorentina, Atalanta keep their first clean sheet in two months and defeat Juventus, and Inter Milan continue their impressive form with a 2-0 win against newly promoted Venezia.

Udinese and Genoa commenced Sunday’s action with a 0-0 draw, followed by Sassuolo pulling off a 3-1 comeback victory to upset Milan at the San Siro. Bologna edged Spezia via a late penalty from Marko Arnautovic, whilst Roma narrowly defeated Torino via a goal from Tammy Abraham. However, the best was saved for last as Napoli faced off against Lazio in a mouth-watering clash on Sunday evening.

Napoli’s Struggles in November

Following a perfect start to the campaign, Luciano Spalletti’s side had suffered various hiccups throughout the month of November, entering the international break after Giovanni Simeone snatched a 1-1 draw for Hellas Verona. They returned to action on November 21 where they would not only lose a thrilling encounter to Inter Milan but lose midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa to a thigh injury that will sideline him for 2-3 weeks. That same fixture saw Victor Osimhen suffer a horrific collision with Milan Skriniar, with the Nigerian striker facing a three-month spell on the sidelines after sustaining fractures in his cheekbone and eye socket. Thus, it came as little surprise when a heavily rotated Napoli side fell to a 2-1 defeat to Spartak Moscow in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday, whilst Lazio snatched a 3-0 win against Lokomotiv Moscow via a brace from Ciro Immobile.

Sarri Takes On His Former Side

Napoli hosted Lazio in a tension-packed encounter that was not short of storylines. Of course, before taking on managerial roles at Chelsea, Juventus, and now, Lazio, Maurizio Sarri made his name in a spectacular three-year spell at the Partenopei, dazzling with a spellbinding brand of football and unsuccessfully pushing Juventus for the league title. Pepe Reina, who started in goal for the Biancocelesti, had served as Napoli’s starting goalkeeper under Sarri before departing for Milan in 2018. And Elseid Hysaj, who had excelled under Sarri during their time together at Empoli and Napoli, started at left-back after swapping Napoli for Lazio on a free transfer last summer. 

Just days before the match, Hysaj was forced to pay Napoli €40,000 for a breach of his contract following a decision by an arbitration committee. The incident dates back to November 5, 2019, when the Albanian defender elected to forego a midseason training retreat following a UEFA Champions League match against Red Bull Salzburg.

The match was also precluded by the unveiling of a statue depicting Diego Maradona, commemorating the one-year anniversary of his death and setting a tone for the proceedings at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

Napoli Crush Lazio

Whilst both teams had the prerogative of dominating possession and putting their stamp on the game, Napoli mounted an early advantage in the 7th minute when Dries Mertens dropped deep to receive a pass from Mario Rui, before switching the play to a wide-open Hirving Lozano on the right flank. The Mexican winger’s cross was blocked by Danilo Cataldi, whose poor clearance fell towards Mertens and forced Francesco Acerbi to make a last-ditch tackle. However, Acerbi’s tackle saw the ball fall to a Piotr Zieliński on the edge of the box, who once again proved why he is one of the deadliest goalscoring midfielders in Europe by firing in the opener.

They doubled their lead just two minutes later with a sensational passing combination that would not have been out of place for Sarri’s Napoli side. Whereas Lazio seemed to struggle to organize their build-up under the pouring rain, Napoli crisply moved the ball around with some sharp one-touch passes that drew a sea of black shirts towards the centre circle and allowed Fabian Ruiz to pick up the ball with acres of space in midfield. The Spaniard took just one touch before playing a laser-guided ball over the top to Lorenzo Insigne, who unselfishly decided to flick the ball towards Mertens with his first touch. Mertens deftly evaded Acerbi and left Patric in his dust with a scintillating drop of the shoulder, before firing into the right corner.

It was a goal created by nearly every single Napoli player, but whose creator and finisher were two members of the old guard, two legendary players who have given everything to the club and who have maintained their excellent form even after Sarri’s departure in 2018. Mertens, who looked set to join Inter Milan on a free transfer in 2020 before renewing his contract, and Insigne, who could be set to depart Napoli on a free transfer next summer with contract extension talks seemingly dead in the water, both stepped up to the task and proved that, despite having a combined age of 64, they will continue to play a crucial role in leading Napoli’s Scudetto charge and replacing Osimhen’s efficiency in attack.

The diminutive Belgian forward tripled their lead in the 30th minute in a slightly similar pattern to the first goal: Fabian picked out a wide-open Lozano on the right flank, who dished it off to Mertens, who curled a beautiful first-touch effort past Reina and into the top-left corner. As Luiz Felipe shook his head and helplessly watched with his hands on his hips, as Napoli players swarmed around the 34-year-old ‘Ciro,’ one could not help but admire the special Maradona illustration on their sky blue shirts. Between the unveiling of the trophy and the unique kits, Napoli weren’t just playing for their pride that had been shaken by their recent form, or their title challenge, but Maradona as well.

Maurizio Sarri made a halftime substitution with Manuel Lazzari replacing Patric at right-back, whilst Mattia Zaccagni and Toma Basic entered shortly after for Felipe Anderson and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, but it was to no avail as Napoli continued to dominate proceedings before eventually scoring a fourth and final goal in the 84th minute. Eljif Elmas shuffled it off to Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who dished it off to Fabian, who trotted forward and drilled in a shot from 30 yards out and into the left corner of the net.

It was a team performance in every sense of the phrase that boiled down to not just Mertens, whose tally of 139 goals and 87 assists in 371 appearances puts him 18 goals clear of Marek Hamšík as the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, or Koulibaly, another member of the old guard who shepherded Lazio’s front three of Pedro, Ciro Immobile and Felipe Anderson with trademark poise and imperiousness. It was also Stanislav Lobotka, who has often struggled to convince since joining from Celta Vigo in January 2020 for a fee of €24 million. Three days after celebrating his 27th birthday, the diminutive Slovenian midfielder was given the start in midfield alongside Fabian in the double pivot due to Zambo’s injury and Diego Demme still not being match fit after recovering from COVID-19. After a sloppy performance against Spartak that saw him concede a penalty, Lobotka sprayed the ball around with ease and held his own in physical duels as well.

Napoli’s Tough Run of Fixtures

Napoli now embark on a tricky fortnight that will see them travel to Sassuolo on Wednesday, host Atalanta on Saturday, before playing Leicester City in their final Europa League group stage match. Matches against Empoli, Milan and Spezia follow, before heading into the Christmas break and returning on January 6 in a clash against Juventus in Turin. It is a daunting fixture list, even more so with their attacking talisman sidelined until February, but they have proven to have the belief and togetherness to compete for their first Scudetto since 1990. The Partenopei’s tally of 35 points from 14 games puts them three and four points clear of Milan and Inter, respectively, whilst their tally of seven goals conceded is only bettered by Chelsea in Europe’s top five leagues. Four years after narrowly losing the league title under Maurizio Sarri, Napoli are once again chasing the promised land with Luciano Spalletti.

Zach Lowy is the co-creator of Breaking The Lines (@BTLVid) and a freelance soccer journalist for various websites such as BET Central, Soccer Laduma and Hudl Analysis. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is the host of the Cortalinhas podcast, a weekly podcast that discusses Portuguese football. Zach has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in football and has written about various subjects for BET Central ranging from Barcelona's financial difficulties to the 'lost generation' of South Africa's Amajita class of 2009.

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