The Rivalry In Blue

Gabbiadini and Higuain: without them, an away goal would not be possible.

Serie A has virtually ended on Monday. In an utterly uneventful game, Juventus clinched a much-needed draw on Stadio Olimpico and preserved their massive, nine-point edge over Roma. They did so despite the absences of Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba, despite Arturo Vidal’s recent fitness problems – even despite facing the toughest, most consistent opposition they can find in Italy. Carlos Tevez, who’s been consistently outstanding for the whole season, scored a beautiful free-kick, adding 21st goal to his 2014-15 scoresheet and it was pretty much game over, as Rudi Garcia’s side needed a win there to keep the league race alive. However, all they did was equalising after a free-kick of their own, ended with Keita’s header. Now, it will take a disaster of unthinkable proportions for Juventus to not win the title for the fourth time in a row – which means that they can focus on Champions League football from now on, as the 2-1 lead they took against Dortmund at home does not look comfortable at all. Roma still can be caught by Napoli and there’s still some competition to get other spots that yield an European qualification – but the major Serie A excitement is gone with the wind.

Alas, there’s still Coppa Italia – the challenge that looks much more promising than any other race in Europe right now, as it involves four out of five best Serie A sides. Last night, Lazio and Napoli met in the semi-final first leg. Tactically, it was a standard affair from both teams: Biancazzurri fielded their 4-3-3 formation with Antonio Candreva being set up very wide as usual and Lazio Brazilian star, Felipe Anderson, orchestrating the attacking play. Partenopei responded with a typical 4-2-3-1, where the most interesting inclusion was undoubtedly Manolo Gabbiadini, deployed behind Gonzalo Higuaín’s back. This 24-years old, versatile striker has been Rafa Benitez’s secret weapon recently, helping the team to dispatch Udinese and Trabzonspor despite starting most of the games from the bench. In Rome, the former Sampdoria player looked as if he was not going to pass the difficult test he was faced with: roaming upfront, he hardly got a touch on ball while Napoli was being outplayed in the first half. At that part of the match, when visitors got the chance to bounce back, they kept delivering passes to de Guzmán, who’s been constantly dispossessed; not exactly the best way to pull off the counterattacking football.

Lazio simply looked better. After Mertens’ decent, initial, lone run ended with an inaccurate cross, the home side woke up from their sleep and started to create chances for their own. Candreva first grabbed the chance to run away with the ball after intercepting Ghoulam’s poor touch in the middle of the pitch. Napoli was lucky to have Raúl Albiol not losing his cool in the penalty area and making a simple clearance there, despite his opponents’ deceptive body balance. That, however was not the end of Napoli’s trouble, as Lazio players elected to cross the ball to Klose. The German barely missed a header after Basta’s delivery and couldn’t get a proper touch less than a minute later, when it was Felipe Anderson’s turn to swing the ball into the area. Eventually, Klose got to do what he does best: to try out a header. It took him less than 10 minutes to create the third dangerous occasion – this time, after a far-post corner. The positioning was there, the timing was perfect, the jump was too much for Ghoulam to handle – yet, this time, instead of landing in the net, the ball hit the post and went wide. Klose would not give up; he found himself on the end of one more headed attempt on a counterattack, just 60 seconds later. Couldn’t they just stop him, somehow?

Klose and Candreva had a reason to celebrate too.

Napoli could not, but they’re lucky to have players who were fixing the holes at the back. Albiol was already mentioned – however, some credit has to go to Ginadomenico Mesto, who interrupted a very dangerous one-touch ball exchange between Candreva and Anderson. Those two and their cooperation with a target-man Klose looked much more impressive than the visitors’ attacking play, that was based mostly on Dries Mertens’ sporadic dribbles. Stefano Pioli, figuring that the opponents are not too keen on attacking anyway, temporarily switched the formation to 3-4-3 – and the game immediately became a little more open. Gabbiadini, Parolo and Higuaín all found themselves in good positions to shoot, but Berisha saved two attempts while Lazio’s midfielder missed his strike from the distance. After that, unlucky Candreva had his another decent cross wasted by his partners the same happened to Anderson’s dribble from the deep. Benítez’s side was clearly missing their most prolific defender of the season, Kalidou Koulibaly, who’s been resting and played only 13 minutes near the end of the game, not really making any particular impact.

The lack of Koulibaly finally backfired when Lazio launched a quick counterattack in 33th minute. Parolo cut down Napoli’s lazy passing game after a throw-in, passed to Felipe Anderson, who sprinted forward unchallenged, creating a 3 vs 3 situation on the visitors’ half. The following through ball was inch-perfect and all Klose only needed to aim at the far post to finish the chance – so he did. Normally, it would’ve been a wake-up call for the team that conceded – but this was not a good first half from Benitez’s eleven. Their wing play was not working, Parolo and Biglia dominated the middle of the park with ease and Albiol’s long shot from rather ridiculous distance in 39th minute more or less underlined teams’ problems. The only thing Napoli got going for themselves before the break was that Gökhan İnler finally started to move further up and sweep Lazio’s poor clearances to restart Partenopei’s attacks. They could’ve equalized in 43th minute, when the home side messed up the clearance, but Klose’s reply was even more dangerous: he’s won another cross, got shut down by Andújar in a one-on-one situation and the rebound fell to Anderson, whose open-goal attempt was cleared off the line by Britos.

Napoli needed adjustments to either shut down Klose wherever he appears or to play wider at the back and get more grasp over Lazio’s crosses before they’re delivered to the German striker. They had a good start to the second half, managing to control the possession well despite home side fans’ relentless whistling. After a splendid corner, David López got on the end of a free header in the middle of the box. If he was half as good in the air as Klose is, it would’ve been an instant sitter; however, he is not, so he only hit the crossbar. This did not stop SSCN from trying; after Mertens’ free kick, Gabbiadini nearly scored a lucky deflection goal when Berisha pushed it away in the nick of time. The Albanian goalie has been brilliant, combining great reflexes with a little bit of luck, but he had no answer in 58th minute. Ghoulam started Napoli’s move down the left wing, passed to David López who noticed Higuaín running in-between two defenders and waiting for the ball. This time, the pass was superbly accurate. However, Higuaín had a fairly poor first touch, refrained from shooting and instead crossed the ball past Berisha. Biglia gave up tracking back when he needed to follow his man and incoming Gabbiadini was free to tap it in.

1-1 at home is a bad result; Lazio knew that. The burden of making something happen was on them. They almost did in 62th minute, when Basta made a good run through the middle, skimmed through couple of clumsily positioned opponents. The ball went then to Klose who was too far, too isolated to do anything other than a long shot. So he blasted it towards the top corner – powerfully but not accurately enough to beat Andújar. Soon after, the game turned into a bit a boxing match. It started with Albiol’s awful tackle on Klose, closely followed by David López’s brawl with Biglia. The referee, who’s been doing great job through the entire game, ended this mess with just a single booking and some elaborate explaining to Klose. Despite that, the German, who looked angered afterwards, quickly relaliated on Napoli’s centre-back, earning his own yellow. But a messy game with lots of fouls, interruptions and physical fight was suiting Napoli more, as the technical advantage Lazio used to have earlier, evaporated. Berisha had to step up once more to clear Ghoulam’s dangerous cross while home sides’ counterttacks lacked precision. It was clearly about time for Stefano Pioli to bring some fresh legs.

He brought 19-years old Keita for Candreva, while Benítez subbed off Gabbiadini to bring in Callejón. Neither of the Spaniards made a major difference, though; the Lazio teenager ran bravely to reach one of the few through balls for his side, but he was blocked. Later, he received a yellow and registered one decent dribble followed by an abysmal cross into the box – not quite what his manager was expecting. Callejón, on the other hand, hardly even got the ball; on the other side of the pitch, it was Mertens’ time to step up. The Belgian looks like one of the few players who are able to shine in the last 15 minutes of any game; this time, he ended a dribble down the left wing with a great pass to de Guzmán who had so much space to shoot from, he actually had to bury it. Yet again, the proper finish evaded him; he was blocked. Overall, the level of play has declined close to the end of the match, as the players focused more on committing little fouls, disrupting the opponents’ play. This opened the chance for set-pieces to decide the result but as it turned out, both teams were fairly good at defending crosses from corners or free-kicks. With no more real chances to speak of, the clash ended with a draw; disappointing for Lazio fans, who were truly outstanding at supporting their team that day:

Rafael Benitez must be happy. His team plays worse than football than the results would indicate and frankly, if positions in the league table were decided purely based on players’ class, Lazio would occupy the third spot ahead of Napoli. However, Rafa’s tactics outweighed that advantage, and although he looked a bit dissatisfied with his lads’ performance near the end, it brought him a favourable result in the end. For Napoli, it was a good warm-up before the league finish, as they’re going to defend their #3 spot from none other than Lazio themselves. The Romans have better calendar and they’re not going to be bothered with much else, while the team from San Paolo is still in Europa League’s race. Therefore, whoever wins their Italian Cup rematch on April 4th, is going to have a massive psychological advantage. Because Serie A calendar does not lie: Napoli vs Lazio, in Naples, on May 31th 2015, is going to be the very last game of this Serie A season – a game likely to decide the last Champions League spot for either of those two. Can at least this rivalry in blue be close enough to keep everyone on their toes?

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