Napoli the most convincing team after seven games

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After a very busy 20-day stretch, Serie A has reached the second international break, so it is the right opportunity to take a breather and examine where things are at, especially on top of the table. The start of the season has had more confirmations than surprises and the real contenders have already been able to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Napoli are alone on top of the standings as they have been perfect so far: 7 wins out of 7. It is the culmination of two years of work under Maurizio Sarri. The Partenopei take great advantage of the most prolific attack in Europe: Dries Mertens, José Maria Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne have insane chemistry and Marek Hamsik broke his unusual drought. They have scored at least three goals in every domestic game. The Azzurri had some troubles only in the home game against Atalanta and on the road in Ferrara, but they managed to come out of top in both occasions. Arkadiusz Milik has not been missed as they have so many weapons on the roster.

Juventus could have easily been on top as well, had they not fumbled away a win that was within reach in Bergamo: they had a 0-2 lead and also missed the 2-3 penalty late in the game. The Bianconeri have not necessarily looked as commanding as Napoli, but they got the job done most of the time. Without Leonardo Bonucci, the defence has not been as air-tight as in the past, but the high-powered offered is carrying them. Paulo Dybala is Serie A’s leading scorer, Gonzalo Higuain got out of the short slump and Mario Mandzukic and Juan Cuadrado have contributed greatly: they even have room for improvement once Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi will be fully integrated. Newcomers Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur have been very helpful in light of the injuries in the midfield.

Inter have collected as many points as Juventus: the Nerazzurri had an explosive start, dismantling Fiorentina and Roma at San Siro, but then tailed off a little, but only from the performance standpoint, because the satisfactory results kept coming. The last three wins against low-table teams have either arrived late or been narrower than expected: the attack has plateaued, but they have been able to manufacture random goals. They have great goalkeeping and a rock-solid defence and Milan Skriniar has been as stout as they could have hoped.

Lazio and Roma are slightly behind as they have already lost a game. The Biancocelesti succumbed against Napoli mostly due to defensive injuries, but their latest run has been nothing short of amazing: without most of their centre-back and half of their attack, as Felipe Anderson and Luis Nani have been non-factors due to physical ailments, they have been automatic against the smaller clubs. Simone Inzaghi and Ciro Immobile are the main actors, Luis Alberto is the revelation that solved a lot of problems upfront. Roma are surging: they have played one fewer match because the Sampdoria fixture has been postponed, but after the loss against Inter they have resembled their last season’s selves. Edin Dzeko is scoring at will and the backline is very solid. Eusebio Di Francesco has been able to come up with creative solutions to deal with a slew of injuries and their play has not suffered. If the teams on top slowed down, they could be in the running for Scudetto.

Serie A will return with a bang in two weeks: Juventus will host Lazio, Roma will square off at home against Napoli and it will be time for the Milan derby. The Rossoneri have quickly dropped out of the title race as they are dealing with chemistry and defensive issues, but the game against Inter could be an opportunity to gain some ground in the table and advance their candidacy for a Champions League spot, but they need to turn things around quickly.

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Napoli again lose Milik to a big knee injury

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On Saturday, Napoli came up on top in the battle with Spal in Ferrara, however, they lost their centre-forward Arkadiusz Milik in the process. The exams revealed an ACL tear in the right knee and he had surgery to fix it on Wednesday. He suffered a similar injury on the other knee last season on October 8th: he returned in mid-February, but the coach Maurizio Sarri only used him in small cameos down the stretch because he was clearly behind the other players conditioning-wise. Napoli’s doctors described the recent injury as a “complex tear”, meaning that other parts of the knee were affected as well, but without giving further details. The timetable remains the standard six months.

Before going down in 2016, Milik had scored seven goal in nine matches as his quest to replace Gonzalo Higuain was going swimmingly. His absence prompted the manager to use Dries Mertens as a false-nine, after Manolo Gabbiadini failed to step up, and the results were extraordinary: the Belgian forward tallied 31 goals in the new role and finished second behind only Edin Dzeko in the Serie A top scorer chart. From the production standpoint, Napoli are equipped to replace Milik: at this point Mertes is a full-fledged center-forward and his combination of speed, technique and shooting skills makes him almost unguardable. He has already scored seven times in nine fixtures this season, abundantly outproducing the Polish player, who had played only 195 minutes so far, scoring twice.

However, that does not mean that they will not miss Milik at all: he brings to the table some characteristics that are unique in the roster, such as his physicality, his ability in the air and his nose for the goal in the box. His absence also takes away the possibility to deploy an uber-offensive 4-2-3-1 with Mertens as no.10 behind a striker: Marek Hamsik no longer has the burst to be threatening in the hole and a Callejon-Mertens tandem would feature two very similar players. This tactic contributed to the 2-3 goal against Spal.

Last season, they signed Leonardo Pavoletti in January as an insurance policy, but he ended up recording only 194 minutes and two starts behind Mertens. This summer, they held onto him and Duvan Zapata, who was returning from a productive stint at Udinese, until the Champions League playoff, but, since Milik looked good earlier on, they decided to cash in on both strikers, who were sold respectively to Cagliari and Sampdoria for a combined €27M, a sum that profusely justifies the moves. Unfortunately, that leaves them without a backup striker for the time being.

Mertens has been extremely durable, but he will too need a breather from time to time. The coach announced that José Maria Callejon will fill that role when need be: the Spaniard has rare tactical intelligence and did well in the few minutes he was used centrally on Saturday. This will of course open up some minutes on the right flank: Emanuele Giaccherini is the first in line after they elected to keep him this summer, but the newcomer Adam Ounas is much more exciting option. As always, youngsters are brought in slowly in Sarri’s system, so it will take a while before the former Bordeaux attacker is ready to start.

In a surprise deadline day move, Napoli did sign one more striker this summer: Roberto Inglese from Chievo, but they agreed to leave him in Verona for one more season. Over the last calendar year, he asserted himself as the Flying Donkey’s best centre-forward. The first move by Azzurri in January will be to try to anticipate his arrival. Riccardo Meggiorini is set to return from an ACL in mid-October and Mariusz Stepinski could have completed his adaptation process by then. Therefore Chievo Verona, also in the standings, could be in a comfortable enough position to let one of their cornerstones leave.

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Napoli need more from Marek Hamsik

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It has been an uncharacteristically quiet start for Napoli captain Marek Hamsik. In six matches, the midfielder has tallied only an assist, while he is obviously known for his offensive prowess. In his best seasons, he has been able to tally double-digit goals and dimes. Most importantly, he does not look as dynamic and as involved as in the past: he is clearly behind the eight ball from the physical standpoint. He is very muscular, so it could take him some time to find the right condition after the pre-season preparation, but Napoli had an early start of the summer program because of the Champions League playoff, so he should be fine by now.

Instead, here is what Gazzetta dello Sport had to say after the Shakhtar Donetsk game: “It is hard to say that this is not a crisis. You can not deny what is clear: this is a tough moment for Marek Hamsik. It has become a case that Maurizio Sarri is trying to handle to avoid further repercussions. He is the shadow of that talented player that intrigued Milan and Juventus so much in the recent past. It is truly embarrassing to see him plod after every ball and it could be counter-productive to keep relying on him.”

He has never played more than an hour so far this season as the coach is trying to protect him. This fact has drawn the ire of his agent Martin Petras: “He finished last season with some physical problems, then he took a break to rest and the season has just started. We always expect something more from Marek: he is fine now, but he only plays 60 minutes. We can only respect these coaching decisions, but from my viewpoint, it is always better for a player to feature in the whole game. Exiting after 60 minutes is depressing: you never rest that way. Preparing the game also has a psychological burden: it could be healthy to stay out, but you have to play 90 minutes in the next match.”

The coach Maurizio Sarri wisely defended him: “He is irreplaceable to me, he has that the ability to play between the lines that none of our other midfielders has. The only way to rest him and to have him at our disposal all the time is to sub him off. When a world class player has a down moment, I play him and support him even more: that’s the only way he can give his 101%.”

It is always recommendable for a coach to shield one of his best players, but Sarri might have to consider the alternatives, at least for the near future, until Hamsik is up to speed conditioning-wise. Napoli have won three games out of three in Serie A: two of them, against Bologna and Atalanta, have been solved after Hamsik was taken out of the pitch. They have Piotr Zielinski and Marko Rog who, albeit different players, could potentially be as impactful as the captain. Hamsik might be better off playing smaller stints at the end of the matches until he returns the devastating force he proved he can be.

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Napoli seek to build upon enthralling victory over Milan

Euro 2016One team has reigned supreme in Serie A over the course of the last five seasons.

Juve’s domination of Serie A

Specifically Juventus have won five successive Scudetto’s, whilst they have made a positive start to winning a sixth.

After opening their 2016-2017 Serie A campaign with a 2-1 home victory over Fiorentina, La Vecchia SignoraThe Old Lady – then beat Lazio 1-0 at the Stadio Olimpico.

Old Lady make strong start to title defense 

The determination and resoluteness which Massimiliano Allegri’s side displayed to earn both of those wins, despite not producing their best form, provided a clear indication that they will be formidable opponents for any other Serie A side and as such, ready to launch a sustainably strong defence of their league title.

With that already being well underway and having the potential to gather momentum when Juventus host Sassuolo in their next league game, teams with any aspirations of breaking the Turin giants Serie A dominance must also begin the season strongly so as to create a solid base upon which to build a sustained title challenge.

Early season evidence of Napoli’s attacking prowess

One team with the potential to do that are last season’s runners-up Napoli, particularly given the wealth of technically gifted attacking players within Partenopei’s squad.

Despite selling Gonzalo Higuain to Juve for €90m in the summer, Napoli remain a potent attacking force, as can be proven by reflecting upon the two Serie A games they have played this season.  In the first of those, Dries Mertens scored a second-half double to help Napoli recover from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Pescara, whilst Maurizio Sarri’s side then enthrallingly defeated AC Milan 4-2 at the Stadio San Paolo.

After Arkadiusz Milik’s brace, the 22-year-old Polish international striker’s first two Serie A goals, gave Napoli a 2-0 half time lead, I Rossoneri drew level shortly after the interval courtesy of goals from M’Baye Niang and Suso.  However Napoli responded positively to surrendering their lead, with Jose Callejon scoring twice to secure his team’s maiden Serie A win of the season.

Whilst the quality of Napoli’s attacking play and creative inventiveness – chief architects of which are the club’s inspirational captain Marik Hamsik along with Callejon and Mertens – is indisputable, at the moment they are far less assured defensively.

Partenopei defensively fragile 

However that is partly attributable to their commitment, which is authorised by manager Sarri and demanded by their vociferously loyal supporters, to endeavour to play an attractive and expansive brand of attacking football that occasionally leaves them vulnerable defensively.

That is particularly the case since the team’s two first choice full-backs Elseid Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam are given licence to maraud forward.

Ultimately Napoli’s defensive frailties were evident during their enthralling victory over Milan.

Sarri tasked with engineering a sustained Napoli title challenge 

 

Nevertheless they will now seek to build upon that by winning their next league game at home to Palermo, as Sarri’s side aspire to establish themselves as genuine title contenders and stay in touch with the ominously strong Juventus at the top of Serie A.

The two teams meet for the first time this season on 29 October at the Juventus Stadium.

Between now and then, Sarri’s aim must be to allow Napoli to continue playing with a similar level of attacking verve and purposefulness as they did against Milan, whilst solidifying them defensively, so that they are suitably equipped to embark upon a fine run of results.

That is vitally important in order to enhance Napoli’s prospects of winning a first Serie A title since 1990 and ending Juventus’ five season dominance of the division.

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Napoli pair answer Sarri’s call

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It’s hard to gauge exactly what Maurizio Sarri is feeling right now. Napoli aren’t talking to the media and haven’t done for a few weeks. Upset over the Gonzalo Higuain four-match ban and the subsequent failure to halve the suspension, Napoli are remaining silent.

Higuain missed the win over Verona and then the weekend loss at Inter. It was a costly defeat which dented Napoli’s already-slim Scudetto hopes. That, coupled with a Juventus win over Palermo, extended the gap to nine points.

Napoli were in action on Tuesday hoping to at least put pressure on the Bianconeri and also stave off the threat from behind, with Roma still a chance of finishing second.

In Higuain’s absence, Manolo Gabbiadini has been handed rare Serie A starts. Such has been the Argentine’s form – 30 League goals – Sarri was unwilling to alter. Gabbiadini’s start against Verona was his first in Serie A since September. Higuain’s ban was a massive blow for the Partenopei, but on a personal level provided Gabbiadini with an opportunity. He responded against Hellas, but could do little against the Nerazzurri on Saturday.

Gabbiadini had another chance against Bologna, and wasn’t the only one. Dries Mertens has mostly been reduced to a substitute role under Sarri, in part thanks to the fine form of Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon. While there hasn’t been much space from the opening whistle, Mertens is Sarri’s go-to man from the bench. He came on for the 24th time this campaign against Inter.

The pair responded to Sarri’s call on Tuesday. Gabbiadini got Napoli off and running with a double inside the opening 35 minutes. Mertens went one better, netting a hat-trick inside 30 second half minutes in just his fifth start. His third was a stunning shot from distance. David Lopez added the icing on the cake to make it 6-0. Napoli have fired in five goals six times in all competitions, but this was their biggest win and at least kept the pressure on Juventus.

And with it, Gabbiadini and Mertens showed Sarri what they can offer. He doesn’t rotate often, but with their performances against the Rossoblu was offered a reminder of their quality. That’s important for the pair and the Coach going into the final weeks of the season and beyond. If Napoli want to take that next step in 2016-17 they will need added depth and quality to compete.

Sarri wasn’t talking again after the win, but the performances of the pair show there is quality beyond the first eleven in this Napoli side.

Napoli miss out on their chance to go top of the Italian Serie A

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Napoli threw away an opportunity to go top of the table after falling short to AC Milan in the Italian Serie A on Monday night. The Sky Blues were big favourites to beat the Rossoneri at home, but ended the game with 10-men and were forced to settle for a point. The result sees them second in the table after 26 games, one point behind holders Juventus, having failed to win their last two league outings.

“What were we missing in these matches? A bit of luck. Tonight both teams created opportunities, there are regrets that we ended the first half on level terms, because Milan barely got the ball. Their equaliser was also clearly affected by an earlier foul. We got irritable, hit the upright and tried everything. This was a night where we had to take a few risks,” said manager Maurizio Sarri after the game.

“I’m sorry that we didn’t win for the fans, as they were spectacular tonight. We tried everything. I saw movement off the ball and more chances created, so it was an improvement in terms of performance,” he added. Despite being in the runners-up spot, Napoli are still holding out hope of topping the Old Lady.

No side in the division have lost as few games as the Sky Blues this season. No side have scored as many goals, and no side have picked up as many points in their own backyard as Napoli too. There’s enough time for them to better Juve’s results, but the perennial champions aren’t going to give Napoli many more opportunities to overtake them.

Napoli will be looking to striker Gonzalo Higuain to provide some moments of magic to get them over the line this season, while Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik will both be key to any success the Sky Blues enjoy come May. In all competitions, Napoli have failed to win their last three games, scoring just once, and Sarri will be hoping they can turn things around in their next outing.

Spanish La Liga side Villarreal are their next opponents in the Europa League which will give the Italians a chance to put their domestic campaign to the back of their minds for a week, but they can’t afford to keep dropping points so easily with the former Juve have been in. And with a trip to third-placed Fiorentina being Napoli’s next league game, Sarri’s men are sure to be challenged in the title race. Can they re-find their form?

Napoli must keep their head high after narrow Juventus defeat

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An 88th minute strike by Juventus’ Simone Zaza was enough to see off visitors Napoli on Saturday evening.

It was billed as the biggest match in years in Italy’s top flight and although it may not have been pleasant to the neutral who craved goals, it proved to be a great showcase for terrific defensive performances among two of the best sides in Europe.

Maurizio Sarri’s side entered the contest on the back of eight consecutive wins, the most in their history while their opponents tallied 14 straight wins, also beating Antonio Conte’s record of 12 victories.

Napoli’s usual 4-3-3 was on hand at the Juventus Stadium while Massimiliano Allegri was forced to retreat from a back three, which the Bianconeri have found great success, to a 4-3-3.

It was the league’s best attack against the best defence and for the most part, both sides neutralised each other’s offensive efforts. Apart from Leonardo Bonucci’s extraordinary defensive clearance and Paulo Dybala’s shot from inside the area, there weren’t too many clear-cut chances from either side in this match.

It all looked set for a draw, with even Juventus sitting back for much of the second half, until Zaza stamped his mark on the match to ensure all three points stayed in Turin. Receiving the ball and turning on his favoured left foot, the 25-year-old wound up and struck the shot. His effort took a deflection off the turned Raul Albiol, beating Pepe Reina in the process.

The victory put the Old Lady one point above the Partenopei, and if the two teams tie on points at the end of the season, goal differential will be the decider since they both share a win. After the match Gianluigi Buffon stated, “Napoli deserved at least a point” while Sarri added “played on a par with Juventus and lost to an unlucky incident.”

As Ivan Zazzaroni mentioned on RAI’s “La Domenica Sportiva”, Juventus have been defeated just once in their last 59 home appearances. Therefore, ultimately being defeated by a deflected shot when the match was heading toward a 0-0 draw should not cause Napoli to despair. They held their own and shouldn’t doubt themselves after a singular match.

Napoli’s coach also stated, “I think the fact we played on a par with Juventus on their own turf, one of the best teams in Europe let alone Italy, shows Napoli have improved.”

Sarri noted his side should’ve taken more offensive risks – particularly Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne – which would’ve allowed Gonzalo Higuain to see more of the ball. While it’s true Andrea Barzagli did well to stop the Argentinean’s advances, Higuain received little to no service during the course of the 90 and ultimately suffered.

All in all, there are still 13 matches left to be played in Italy’s top-flight and the title will be decided in the final rounds of play.

Jose Callejon proving to be reliable as ever for Napoli

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In a team with Gonzalo Higuain and Lorenzo Insigne playing the way they are, it’s hard to stand out. Since arriving in the summer, new coach Maurizio Sarri has really instilled a resounding notion of unity amongst the squad that was absent during last season’s disappointing campaign under Rafael Benitez.

Instead of playing as individuals, the ex-Empoli coach has really turned around his players to play for the squad, for each other.

And he’s found success with it too, currently topping the table ahead of current champions Juventus.

No player exemplifies this mentality more than Jose Callejon. The Real Madrid winger arrived to the San Paolo in the summer of 2013 for €10 million.

Featuring predominately on the right of attack, Callejon offers plenty of pace and intelligent positioning, making deadly runs behind opposing defences.

His best quality however is his determined work-rate. Always one to track back, Callejon’s commitment to defensive duty has made him one of the most important pieces to Sarri’s side.

Following an underwhelming 2014/2015 season, many expected the 28-year-old to leave the Partenopei in the summer, with Atletico Madrid previously interested in the Spanish international.

However, with much surprise the winger stayed and has continued his good form for Napoli. Callejon scored 20 goals in all competitions in his first season with the club and 12 last year; the current terms sees the winger on 10 strikes so far.

It took until December to see the Spaniard register his first league goal, but his latest sharpness in front of goal is coming at the perfect time for the club. Callejon has netted four times in his last six matches in all competitions, returning to the form that made him Napoli’s second highest top scorer during the 2013/14 season.

Callejon’s work may go largely unnoticed – hidden from the spotlight centered on Higuain – but the winger’s diligent work-rate is a key reason why Napoli are playing as well as they are.

Serie A mid-season report: The leaders

Even Diego Maradona has changed his tune. In September he lashed out at Maurizio Sarri, stating the newly appointed tactician was “not the right coach for a winning Napoli.” They had picked up only two points from three matches.

By November, on the back of the Neapolitans winning for the sixth time in seven matches, the Argentine icon confessed he was wrong. And the next time he spoke, after Napoli secured the title of Winter Champions on Sunday, El Pibe de Oro had one request: “Now I want you to win the Scudetto!”

Napoli shot to the top of the table thanks to Inter’s home loss to Sassuolo and their 5-1 drubbing of Frosinone. It was a fitting way to cap the opening half of the campaign, won in the same swashbuckling fashion displayed all term. Napoli netted five in a match for the fifth time this term. They are Serie A’s leading scorers.

Not since the Maradona era, 1989-90 to be precise, had Napoli been the ice kings. Can they finish the job? It’s a good omen as 69% of Winter Champions, including Napoli that year and the last 12, have claimed the Scudetto.

It wasn’t expected in August. Sarri had impressed at Empoli, but this was his first big club. And Napoli were coming off a disappointing fifth placed finish under Rafa Benitez. So what has changed? President Aurelio De Laurentiis says the team “enjoys its football.” That’s been mixed with Sarri transmitting a winning mentality. Where Napoli would once trip over matches against lower ranked sides, Sarri’s team is ruthless. He demands humility at all times. This creates consistency.

Their defensive record has improved significantly. Kalidou Koulibaly leads a miserly back four which has gone from conceding 54 goals last term to just 15 at the halfway mark. The calming presence of Pepe Reina in goal also helps.

The most significant shift has been Gonzalo Higuain’s insatiable appetite for goals. The Argentine has banged in as many goals in 19 games – 18 – as he did all last term. He’s one of five players to have appeared in every fixture and has only failed to score in seven. His form is paramount to Napoli’s Scudetto charge.

Two points clear of Juventus and Inter, Napoli are aware this is only the beginning. Their current crown “means nothing” for Higuain, while his boss reminded that “nobody ever won a marathon halfway through.” That modesty will continue to serve Napoli well. Maybe then Maradona will get his wish.

Hamsik provides ideal response to Sarri’s New Year wish

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What, Maurizio Sarri was asked, were Napoli lacking as 2016 commenced? “I don’t think we’re missing much,” came the response. But then thinking, he supposed if he could ask for something it would be for more goals from Marek Hamsik, even if he admitted he’s more of a midfielder these days.

Goals haven’t been an issue for Napoli this season. Their tally of 31 to Christmas was the third highest in Serie A. But over half arrived from one source: Gonzalo Higuain. He’s well out in front at the top of the scorers chart with 16. Napoli’s next best was Lorenzo Insigne with seven. Hamsik struck just twice.

That’s well below his past totals, including reaching double figures on three occasions, lastly in 2012-13. Then the Slovak and Rafa Benitez had a frosty relationship and his role was not as prominent. He struck seven times in both campaigns under the Spaniard.

He’s now playing a more withdrawn role for Sarri as part of the midfield trio, but the enjoyment factor has returned. It’s showing in his performances. In the scoring stakes, the captain ended 2015 as he started the season, by getting on the scoresheet.

Napoli started the New Year in third, but only a point off the lead. By the time they hosted Torino on Wednesday evening, championship rivals Inter, Fiorentina and Juventus had all triumphed. That put the pressure on Sarri’s men to respond.

Only once had Napoli emerged victorious without a goal from Higuain. That came in the 4-0 drubbing of Milan. And the Argentine hadn’t scored in only six games all season. His importance to Napoli’s Scudetto tilt cannot be underestimated. Still, other scoring options would help.

Insigne grabbed goal number eight with a sumptuous lob over Daniele Padelli to open the scoring. It was the perfect way to kick-off a year in which he hopes to earn a place in Antonio Conte’s Euro 2016 squad. But Torino were back on level terms as Neapolitan-born Fabio Quagliarella struck from the spot.

Just as they appeared headed to go to the interval level, Hamsik netted a fine goal from a tight angle following a superb Insigne pass. His 78th goal was the topper to celebrating his 300th Serie A appearance. His third of the term allowed Napoli to stay within a point of leaders Inter.

It also showed that the Partneopei can win without Higuain getting on the scoresheet. If he goes through a tough patch, having other options will be pivotal to their Scudetto hopes. And Hamsik will play an important role.