Luciano Spalletti called it a “crossroads” in Napoli’s season. After their elimination from Europe on Thursday night, his team had no dreams left to pursue beyond a Scudetto bid that appeared to be fading. Top of the table at the start of December, the Partenopei had since fallen behind both Milan clubs and were starting to feel Juventus’s breath on their necks.
Results were trending in the wrong direction. More importantly, so were performances. Napoli drew away to Barcelona at the Camp Nou but their 4-2 defeat in the return leg was more emphatic than the scoreline suggests. Spalletti’s team offered no answers to questions posed by Adama Traoré, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Frenkie de Jong.
Three days earlier, Napoli had needed a late equaliser to draw 1-1 away to 17th-placed Cagliari. Their opponents created the better chances, and lamented a penalty not given when the ball struck Mario Rui’s hand inside the box.
Optimism was in short supply ahead of Sunday’s trip to face a Lazio team with Champions League ambitions of their own. Spalletti, though, did not shy away from the moment. For the second week running, both Milan and Inter had drawn, giving his side the chance to go joint-top. “We need to choose whether we want to be quickly forgotten or to linger as heroes in the heads of Napoli’s supporters.”
At first, it seemed as though Lazio might send them off down the former path. Ciro Immobile drew a save from David Ospina in the opening minute and Lazio would create two more good scoring chances inside the opening 10. Luis Alberto collapsed face-down into the turf after side-footing a shot wide at the back post.
The Biancocelesti were carrying the weight of disappointment from their own European exit on Thursday, losing 4-3 on aggregate to Porto after some wasteful finishing in the second leg. Comments from the Lazio manager, Maurizio Sarri, made plain that he had not let go, either, of the 4-0 defeat they suffered to Napoli back in November.
Anxiousness to avoid a repeat was understandable in the man who led the Partenopei to their highest-ever points total in 2017-18. He came with a better gameplan this time around, having Sergej Milinkovic-Savic drift right to accompany Felipe Anderson and flood one side of the pitch. Lorenzo Insigne was forced backwards to assist Napoli’s overwhelmed left-back, Mario Rui.
Yet Lazio were unable to crown their superiority with a goal. Napoli, let off the hook, gradually found their way back into the game. Still, they struggled to create scoring opportunities of their own before Spalletti subbed off his team’s No 10, Piotr Zielinski, for Eljif Elmas just before the hour mark.
The Poland international had been effectively smothered by Lazio, but his replacement brought a less subtle, more combative approach. It was Elmas who intercepted a pass from Patric to launch a Napoli attack moments after coming onto the pitch. The ball came back to him via Matteo Politano, and he nudged it through for Insigne to score from the edge of the box.
No player in a Napoli shirt might have needed a goal more. Insigne was whistled by his own team’s supporters as he left the pitch against Barcelona, disappointment at the team’s performance mixing with resentment at the player’s decision to leave his boyhood club and join Toronto FC at the end of this campaign.
Whether distracted by his impending move or simply out of form, this has not been Insigne’s finest season. He did score against Barcelona, his eighth goal in all competitions but also a seventh from the penalty spot. His only strike from open play had come in a 3-0 stroll past Legia Warsaw during the Europa League’s group stage.
On Sunday he took his chance brilliantly, whipping a shot first-time around the lunging boot of Adam Marusic and into the bottom corner. Could this be a moment that restores him? Insigne put the ball in the net again seven minutes later but was denied by an offside ruling from the VAR booth.
The game moved into a helter-skelter finale, Lazio pouring forward while Napoli sought a winner on the break. Pedro, on as a second-half substitute for the hosts, had already drawn one brilliant save from Ospina before he equalised with a spectacular first-time volley of a ball that had been headed clear from a free-kick.
Napoli were back at the crossroads. Two minutes plus injury time remained. In the press box, match reports were hastily being reconstructed around familiar narratives of a team that is always said to crumble when the stakes are raised – coming up short just like they did on Thursday against Barcelona, just like they did under Sarri when they let the title slip through their fingers despite that record points haul.
Not before or since Diego Maradona have Napoli seen a Scudetto challenge through to a triumphant conclusion. Perhaps they never will. But on Sunday, at least, they refused to yield, launching themselves straight back onto the attack. Victor Osimhen was denied by a brilliant block in the first minute of injury time. Nobody could stop Fabián Ruiz in the fourth.
In a game of spectacular goals, this was a worthy winner. There were three defenders between the Spaniard and the goal when he received Lorenzo Insigne’s lay-off, so he swung the ball around them, sending it on a trajectory that seemed to be moving off target before nipping back in to kiss the inside of the post before nestling in the corner.
Players spilled over the advertising hoardings in celebration with substitutes wearing training tops carrying the slogan “Sarò con te, e tu non devi mollare” – “I will be with you, and you must never give up”. It is a line from a terrace chant that Spalletti adopted in pre-season as a mantra for his players, a phrase to remind them who they are playing for.
The juxtaposition of yellow bibs and blue tracksuits lent those words a different poignancy on Sunday, steering minds toward struggles more profound than football. Spalletti had spoken against the war in Ukraine at his pre-game press conference, saying: “No motive can be valid to force people to become refugees in the world, to risk being hit by bombs.”
To talk about resilience in a sporting performance feels trivial in a moment like this, yet Spalletti and his players were entitled to feel proud of sticking to their task and earning a result that puts them back on top of the Serie A table for the first time in almost three months.
“I hear everyone busting our balls, saying that this team doesn’t have character,” said Spalletti. “Now I want to see what they say today. This team has character.”
It has another big game coming up next weekend, too, against the Milan team with whom they now share first place. Napoli’s season remains at the crossroads. For now, it is enough to know they have not chosen the path to anonymity just yet.