By Joe Fischetti.
Italian football finally returned this week, starting with the Coppa Italia semi-finals.
Juventus advanced to the final with a 1-1 draw at San Siro enough to see them through on away goals after a 0-0 draw in last night’s second leg.
Napoli and Inter meet tonight at the Stadio San Paolo to see who will join them. Here are five reasons why Napoli should reach the final.
Napoli Lead 1-0
While the Azzurri were by no means the better team in the first leg, they nonetheless walked away from the San Siro with a 1-0 victory.
As we saw in both the first leg of this tie as well as against Barcelona in the Champions League, Napoli is capable of defending for 90 minutes straight and of doing it well.
Given the long layoff, it would not come as a shock if Napoli manager Genaro Gattuso once again employed an ultra-conservative style aimed at securing at 0-0 draw in the second leg, which would be enough to see his squad through to the final.
The Schedule Favors The Partenopei
Inter are in the difficult position of competing in the Coppa Italia while at the same being very much alive in the race for the Scudetto.
The Nerazzurri are among eight clubs whose Matchday 25 fixtures were postponed due to Covid-19.
The makeup fixtures have been scheduled for June 20 and 21, so if Inter advance to the final, this match on June 13 will be followed by matches on June 17 and 21.
Meanwhile, Napoli do not resume Serie A play until June 23 — a full week after the semi-final. At one point Inter had threatened to play their Primavera squad in this match in protest, but it appears the club were merely posturing to have the schedule changed.
They were not successful and consequently will have to manage workloads to a greater extent than Napoli to avoid injuries.
To do this, Inter will have to rely heavily on their bench, particularly when it comes to their ageing wingbacks. The available substitutes — Cristiano Biraghi, Victor Moses, Kwadwo Asamoah and Danilo D’Ambrosio — represent a downgrade to their starting counterparts, and will give an advantage to Napoli in midfield.
Napoli’s Priorities Align With The Schedule
Because Napoli are a fair way off Champions League qualification, let alone Scudetto contention, their primary focus at the moment is to win the Coppa Italia.
Once the Cup is over, Napoli’s focus will shift to Serie A with the goal of qualifying for the Champions League and the expectation of qualifying for the Europa League. Once Serie A is complete, their focus will shift once again, this time towards the Champions League, currently scheduled to be played in August.
Inter, on the other hand, are still alive in the Scudetto race. While they are currently nine points back of first-placed Juventus, Inter have a match in hand, so winning that match would reduce the gap to six points.
Pre-Covid-19, Inter would have been considered out of contention, but now that margin no longer feels insurmountable. In addition to managing physical workload, Inter will have to manage the distraction posed by their upcoming Serie A fixtures and the potential of securing the club’s first Scudetto since 2010. A distraction that could result in blunders and overall poor play on the pitch.
Change In Formation
There has been much talk about Antonio Conte switching from his favoured 3-5-2 formation to a 3-4-1-2 in order to integrate Christian Eriksen. The change makes sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the goal needed to level the scoreline, and Eriksen provides more creativity than Mattias Vecino.
The change could work remarkably well or it could be a horrible failure. One reason to suspect the latter is that Inter have played a 3-5-2 in all but three matches this season. To introduce a new formation, and a player who has largely featured off the bench, after a three-month layoff is a risky endeavour that could well backfire.
Napoli Have Emerged From The Break Stronger Than Ever
It seems like nearly a lifetime ago Napoli were spiralling out of control and plummeting in the table. Gattuso seemed to right the ship before Covid-19 put a stop to sports around the globe.
Remarkably, the Partenopei seem to have emerged from the break stronger than before, largely because of their manager. Gattuso remained in close contact with his players and especially his captain Lorenzo Insigne, all of whom remained in Italy during the break. He was also instrumental in convincing both Dries Mertens and Piotr Zielinski to renew their contracts.
Meanwhile, upper management has instilled confidence in Gattuso with recent reports suggesting the Italian’s contract will be extended for at least two more years.
This Napoli squad will undoubtedly be extra-motivated to deliver results for their manager and earn a trophy that would salvage what has otherwise been a tumultuous season.
While there remains a great deal of uncertainty, particularly with respect to player fitness and propensity to get hurt, there are plenty of reasons to expect Napoli to be playing in the Coppa Italia final on June 17.