The in-form Azzurri continue to chase a Champions League spot while the hapless Pythagoreans are staring at immediate relegation from the top flight
There might not be a public admission but Gennaro Gattuso probably had an eye on Nigeria’s two Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Benin and Lesotho, owing to star striker Victor Osimhen being in action for the Super Eagles.
Having had little game time with Napoli before the international break, the young forward thrived for the West African giants and ended joint top scorer in qualifying with five goals and he set up Oghenekaro Etebo vs Lesotho to take his assists tally to five.
However, it wasn’t without initial resistance and difficulty. Osimhen saw an early second-half effort come back off the post, a late header saved by Saturnin Allagbe and a close-range effort blocked on the line with almost the last kick of the game.
While Paul Onuachu eventually netted after Osimhen’s shot was blocked, there may have been frustration on the part of the striker at his misfortune in front of goal. Rather than be affected badly by events in Porto-Novo, however, the Napoli striker put in a man of the match performance in Tuesday’s 3-0 success over the bottom side in the group.
The goal, only his second this year, and assist aside, the former Lille striker was tenacious as ever as he essentially led the Super Eagles’ press, ran the channels effectively and was a thorn in the side of the visiting side all game.
Given his struggles for form and sharpness before the international break, the 22-year-old’s reaction on Nigeria duty had to be music to Gattuso’s ears, with the AC Milan icon hoping he can now count on his star striker for the business end of the campaign.
Napoli’s big summer signing hasn’t had the maiden year he’d have desired after his move from Lille, with injury and coronavirus disrupting a season that may not have produced goals but had, pre-November at least, witnessed promising performances in his first few months in Naples.
His layoff understandably slowed him down, with showings since his return from injury in January largely underwhelming.
As a consequence, the Azzurri’s return to form to throw their hat into the ring for Champions League qualification has been despite Osimhen, rather than with him playing a prominent role.
From that perspective, owing to the huge outlay for his services, the Nigeria star has had a miserable campaign in every sense. Napoli’s recent wins have come without the 22-year-old playing a leading role, evidenced by victories over AC Milan and Roma where he played 30 and 24 minutes respectively, a situation that wasn’t the intention when he was signed.
Not even a goal against Bologna, his first in four months since scoring against the same opponents in early November, did enough to convince Gattuso the tenacious frontman was ready to be thrown back in after another brief injury.
Be that as it may, the fact Osimhen was brought in for the long term means he’ll become a mainstay in the team sooner or later, due to his current ability, potential and the club’s astronomical outlay.
While the young forward hardly looks forlorn, his confidence will be given a world of good if he’s trusted to lead the line against Crotone, the cellar-dwelling side in Serie A.
The Pythagoreans’ struggles are strange when you consider they’ve got one of the division’s top scorers on their roster. Simy’s 13 league goals are outdone by only six players in the whole league, but Serse Cosmi’s team have let in a staggering 70 goals, 16 more than 19th-placed Parma.
When you consider that all six of the aforementioned sextet play for teams occupying the top seven spots in the league, the towering striker’s return is all the more impressive. Crotone’s last loss, a 3-2 defeat by Bologna, was a real kick in the teeth and a microcosm of the issues Cosmi inherited in Calabria and what could undermine Simy’s exploits in front of goal.
The Pythagoreans led 2-0 at half-time, the second netted by the team’s top scorer, and held on to that advantage until a collapse in the last half-hour saw the hosts throw away what looked to be an unassailable advantage, to Cosmi’s bemusement.
Those three points would have placed Simy and co. five points from safety, but the damaging 21st defeat of the campaign leaves them eight adrift of 17th-placed Cagliari with 10 games to play. A win in Naples, unforeseen as it seems, woulc be the perfect tonic for a struggling side looking to avoid immediate relegation after last year’s promotion from Serie B.
However, only Inter Milan’s form betters Napoli’s 13 points from a possible 15 in the last five games, and Gattuso’s fifth-place team (53 points) are in a battle with AC Milan (59), Juventus and Atalanta (both tied on 55 points) for the three remaining top four slots in Serie A.
The Azzurri face inconsistent Juve in their outstanding game to be held in Turin, where a victory makes things even more intriguing in the final stretch of the 2020/21 campaign.
Surely, the final 10 games will obviously be drama-filled, and Osimhen and Simy will strive to play pivotal roles for their sides looking to meet respective targets after mostly topsy-turvy campaigns.