June 23, 2021

Osimhen’s impact and Koulibaly staying make Napoli Serie A dark horses

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The Nigerian’s seismic impact in the Italian top flight, and presence of the Senegal colossus mean Gli Azzurri could gatecrash the title conversation

Victor Osimhen’s reaction 10 minutes before eventually scoring Napoli’s fourth in their 4-1 drubbing of Atalanta was striking. The effervescent frontman had just been denied by Marco Sportiello in the 33rd minute at the Stadio San Paolo, yet, his wide smile and double high-five with Dries Mertens reflected his overall mood.

For someone who hadn’t been following the game up to that point, you might have thought the Nigerian was on a hat-trick and was amused at being denied his third of the afternoon. Far from it, the 21-year-old wasn’t on the scoresheet at the time, neither had he opened his competitive account for the Partenopei almost halfway into his third appearance since moving from Lille.

In a statistics-driven age, where observers focus on raw numbers, some eyebrows may have been raised before Gennaro Gattuso’s troops faced free-scoring Atalanta on Saturday. Osimhen had fired blanks going into gameweek four — having played 119 minutes before kick-off in Naples — a run that extended to 162 minutes before his 43rd-minute strike to send Gli Azzurri 4-0 up at half time.

Even though the raw numbers show the promising big-money signing has scored one and set up as many, his overall impact — witnessed by those who’ve actually seen Napoli play since the Serie A season started — demonstrate how valuable the West African is becoming to the side.

Osimhen not only came on to devastating effect in their 2-0 win over Parma in gameweek one, but he’s also delivered effective showings in the 6-0 hammering of Genoa — assisting Piotr Zielinski’s goal — and in Saturday’s thrashing of Gian Piero Gasperini’s team, who’d scored 13 times in the opening three fixtures.

Nullifying Atalanta is no mean feat, so Gattuso’s men restricting them to one goal from xG of 0.64 — La Dea’s lowest since a goalless encounter with Sampdoria in November 2019 — was hugely impressive. This was no coincidence, however, with a Kalidou Koulibaly-led backline so-far one of the best in Europe.

Statistics show that Napoli have allowed the second-fewest volume of shots on target (six) in the continent’s top five leagues and they sit joint-second along with Athletic Club, Udinese and Brighton & Hove Albion for the number of saves (five).

Digging deeper, the underlying numbers reveal that Gattuso’s men aren’t simply getting lucky with the opposition missing chances against them, as their defensive sturdiness is further reflected in their xGA of 1.7 — the outright best in Europe so far. For greater context, Bayer Leverkusen, who have allowed only five shots on their target have posted xGA of 2.9, while it’s 2.1, 3.8 and 5.3 for Athletic, Udinese and Brighton respectively.

Admittedly, Napoli’s improvement at the back is a collective effort, but much of it is owed to Koulibaly’s ostensible return to form after last year’s decline and rumours of a move away during the extended summer window. Manchester City were favourites to acquire K2 but a fractious relationship between both clubs and Aurelio De Laurentiis’ asking price meant the Citizens opted for Ruben Dias instead.

After enduring a tough 19/20 amid all the in-fighting in Naples, the Senegal stopper has been immense in the opening weeks of this campaign, signalling a return to his brilliant best. The 29-year-old still retains an influence in the team’s build-up play but has largely been astute in his defensive duties as well.

Barring an error to commit into a tackle that led to Atalanta’s consolation, arguably the only time he’s put a foot wrong this term, the experienced centre-back looks to be returning to the lofty heights of previous seasons, and Napoli, not Man City or any other side in Europe, are going to be beneficiaries.

The top Serie A sides are unique in the sense that their frontmen are shaped in the team’s identity; with Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus, Romelu Lukaku at Inter Milan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at AC Milan. Osimhen’s arrival in Naples has sharpened the tip of the spear of Gattuso’s set up and his immense impact has not only made them strong top four contenders but outsiders for their first top flight title since 1990.

Of course, it may be too early to throw Napoli’s hat into the ring for a title challenge but the uncertainty and craziness of the times we live in mean the extraordinary cannot be ruled out. The Old Lady are in transition under an inexperienced Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Conte’s soldiers are their major competition.

However, their weekend defeat at the hands of a resurgent AC Milan proved they can be got at.

While Stefano Pioli’s young, in-form Rossoneri team may not be as advanced in their development to mount a title challenge just yet, their tremendous growth in recent months suggests they could contend for the Scudetto if the top guns falter.

There’s also Atalanta, whose attacking verve under Gasperini often proves too much for many sides in Serie A — well, except Napoli who destroyed them on Saturday — while Lazio have to find their form promptly if they hope to challenge once again.

The sheer unpredictability of this season means that Gattuso’s men have a chance if the stars duly align.

Most of the key players from their challenge under Maurizio Sarri in 17/18 are still at the club and they have a manager in Gattuso whose ongoing maturation on the job continues to catch the eye.

Finally, the addition of Osimhen makes Napoli even more threatening. The Super Eagle’s style means Serie A defenders will have little respite when he’s on the pitch. His movement would take them into areas they’d not want to drift into while his competitive nature and inter-play mean centre-backs wouldn’t relish facing the West African forward.

As the 21-year-old has shown to be a threat even when he isn’t scoring, opposition central defenders are in for a long season.

Having given a preview of the menace he carries against Parma, Osimhen continued vs Genoa and put the nation’s second-placed in-form side in 2020 to the sword — he was due to tap in Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s cross before Sportiello diverted it onto Hirving Lozano, his mere presence made two Atalanta players get in each others’ way in the build-up to his side’s second and he iced a very sweet cake with his 43rd-minute goal.

Without question, Osimhen’s impact has transformed Napoli’s attack. Together with Koulibaly, who marshals a near watertight backline, the Partenopei, not Inter, could be the ones to finally end Juventus’ Serie A hegemony.