The third goal just went in. When Pogba’s gone, others have to take over…
The irony can be strong in football. Last night, it struck powerfully again. It arrived 28 minutes into the Lazio vs Napoli match and took a form of an ad. BT Sports commentators were busy, announcing the mid-week Barcelona’s Champions League game. Yeah: all of that traditional hyping and pandering went through. Must-watch clash… Great history… Dani Alves’ grudge match… Blah-blah-blah. Fine. On the other hand… Why would I bother to watch it? I was already having an actual Blaugrana playing right in front of my eyes!
And, to clarify: it wasn’t even the 2017, creaky version of Barcelona. It wasn’t the struggling, error-prone team with Lucho Enrique on the bench, André Gomes running laps in the midfield and embarrassments being suffered in Paris, Vigo or Malaga. No: on a Sunday evening, I was genuinely watching the best-possible, mid-2009 Barcelona team with the occasional, strong hints of the 2015 flavour. The passing. The movement. The constant desire to get involved displayed by all players. Everything was there. In the year 2017.
This new Barcelona was wearing the indigo kits, mowing down the pitch in Italy rather than in Spain and bearing the name of SSC Napoli. Frankly, it was rather glorious. Imitating famous sides can be easy when you’re faced with the team inherently inferior to yours. However, this was not the case. It wasn’t Pescara or Empoli, who transformed Partenopei into Barça; no, it was actually Lazio, the fourth-place Lazio, playing at Stadio Olimpico, in front of 20 thousands of Biancocelesti fans!
Jorginho – the brain
Taking control of this game… with no survivors.
Anyone remembers Xavi? The man who’d complete over 100 passes each game, occasionally misplacing one in the span of three months? He was the guy who conquered the second ball; the man to always hover around the teammate, giving him an easy option in case he ran out of the difficult ones. On a normal day, Xavi would be so good, his presence alone would force the opposition into some sort of a 3000 metres steeplechase practice rather than football – because they could not get a sniff of the ball anyway.
On Sunday evening, Jorginho was that man – and more. Xavi, in his prime, would typically satisfy himself with 100-110 passes per game and 95% accuracy of those. Against Lazio, Jorginho completed 151 (!) passes with 94% accuracy. I repeat: one hundred and fifty one. Granted: most of those were very short ones, but still. It was his linking presence that absolutely brushed aside the likes of Marco Parolo and Alessandro Murgia. With him nearby, both Allan and Marek Hamšík were free to join the attacks at will.
174 touches. Basta, Parolo, Murgia and Lukaku together have managed 184…
If there’s another ‘new Barcelona’ hiding around the corner – or, perhaps, just a team with the ambition to emulate tiki-taka – they should absolutely look at the first half of yesterday’s match and observe Jorginho. Observe and admire: because without the glue in his legs, the visitors wouldn’t be nearly as dominant. The only thing that separated the Brazilian from a perfect display was an assist or goal. On the other hand – as we all know, even his far more famous predecessor could usually live without those.
Hamšík – the engine
The record is near. The legend is in making.
In the days when Barcelona struggle to accommodate André Gomes and wish Ivan Rakitić was at his best form – Maurizio Sarri does not have such dilemmas. His go-to man, Marek Hamšík is currently on 11 goals and 9 assists in 30 Serie A appearances this season – and the amazing run he’s made in order to provide an assist for the first goal says it all about his recent form. If it wasn’t for a relatively poor October, this season would’ve been a prefect campaign for this attack-minded Slovak, who averages over one goal per every four hours of 2016/17 football.
This season, an ex-Slovan Bratislava lad has already came dangerously close to breaking all-time goalscoring records for his team. His longevity, combined with a brilliant striking technique, has brought him to the quota of 92 Serie A goals for Napoli. Only the Croatian legend, Antonio Vojak has more – and he’s been poaching them in the carefree times before the WW2. In terms of SSCN goals in all competitions, Hamšík is only racing with Diego Maradona – and since he’s got only five goals left to surpass the Argentinian, we may expect that to happen at the start of 2017/18 season.
“He is like the best Steven Gerrard. He has become the complete midfielder. He’s extraordinary and one of the most fundamental players for us.” – said Maurizio Sarri about the captain in February. What he didn’t mention was his players’ free role in the midfield three; a role that’s been fundamentally different than a standard #10 spot behind a striker Hamsik’s been rooted to under both Walter Mazzarri and Rafa Benítez. It’s the flexibility that allows him to flourish now – and isn’t the flexibility a ‘Barcelonish’ trait?
Insigne – the venom
Insigne. Cut out dabbing and you’ll have a perfect, pocket-size forward.
Xavi’s evil twin has always been Andrés Iniesta. Lurking a little bit down the left, slightly further forward, he’d effortlessly transport the ball into the final third and find the smooth solutions on how to orchestrate the goalscoring moves. In his prime, Iniesta has been an attacking extension of Xavi’s will and a part-time goalscorer himself. In 2017, at the dawn of his career, he occasionally still delivers those qualities in big games – yet, it’s getting more and more clear that FCB should continue the quest for his replacement.
Well… There’s one lad who might be suited for that role. His name also starts with ‘I’ and also consists of seven letters. At his 163 cms, he’s even tinier than his Spanish colleague, but the ability of his left leg and the constant skill at evading the opponents’ pressing are ranking him right behind the bald magician from Catalonia. Yesterday, he gave an exemplary, nightmare-inducing performance to Dušan Basta, bullying the narrow, three-man Lazio defence along the way. Clocking 100 accurate passes while being non-stop in the final third has never been this easy.
Lorenzo Insigne. The guy might not (yet?) have that insane ability to hold the ball to his feet no matter what happens. During the second half, just like his team, he had moments of a slight crisis. On the other hand: it’s him, who raced to Allan’s aerial pass and deftly put it away instead of smashing it into the stands. It’s him, who ended it all by superbly placing a rather difficult volley from Zieliński’s layoff in the injury time. Without this guy, the new Barcelona from Naples would remain incomplete – and he still might be far from unveiling his final form.
Strinić – the legs
Few years too late, but finally everything is falling into the place.
This guy has been waiting for his chance for way too long. After spending the best years of his career moving between France, Croatia and Ukraine, he’d finally find a safe haven in Naples – only to become permanently glued to the bench while the lucky star of Faouzi Ghoulam flew high. Prior to the match in Rome, Strinić would only amass 25 Serie A games in three seasons and have the dubious privilege of watching his former club, Dnipro, eliminating Partenopei from the Europa League semifinals (again: from the sidelines). At 29, this was his last shot to make a name for himself – clearly, not the path that many full-backs follow.
And so he did. After making sure that Lazio pose no threats down the wings in their wicked 3-4-2-1 system, the Croat transformed into Jordi Alba and basically flooded the left flank with persistent runs, forcing Lazio defenders to break their defensive shape and leave other areas unguarded. It’s him who’d win the possession back before the build-up to the first goal; it’s him, who took part in a tiny wing interplay that preceded the 2-0 attack. He was so eager to get involved in the attacks that his right-wing counterpart Hysaj would hardly need to break sweat going forward.
In 2014, Strinić was reportedly on a brink of West Ham move; in 2016, Crystal Palace were looking to sign him as Pape Souaré’s replacement. Well, step aside English clubs – with this performance and a potential summer transfer of Ghoulam, your target might as well be staking the claim for Napoli’s starting XI. With the benefit both to the club and to himself – after all, ‘The New Barcelona’ craves a winger-defender like him.