To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.
It’s Juventus at home in the cup first, and with an away day at Cittadella to follow at the weekend I choose this as my fixture for which to select the best eleven. Before any of that happens I am asked to register my changes for the rest of the Champions League. It’s not possible to include Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian was brought in as ballast and there simply isn’t the space to add him, however his youth means he can play in Italy without the need for labyrinthine registration rules.
Clearly, the Coppa Italia is a massive deal for us. Win it and I can leave Italy, or at least look for jobs in other countries so that the Glory Hunter challenge can be progressed. I like it in Napoli, despite the club’s resources, which have to be spread rather thinly and occasionally involve making some difficult decisions e.g. the fans aren’t putting the flags out over my decision to let Mertens go, and when I consider what Schick did in his role instead, I have to concede that they have a point. Anyway, it’s a competition that really matters, and at some point we will have to get past Juventus along the way. Will this be the time…?
Despite a clear lack of match fitness Odsonne Edouard is selected to start against Juventus. It’s this that I think contributes to a middling performance – it’s never easy to make your debut in a climate like this, not with Bonucci and De Ligt keeping an eye on you – but he wins an early free-kick, from which Eric Garcia heads beyond Szczesny. A humiliating moment for the Pole, who gets his fingertips to the shot but can only parry it further into his own net. Juve’s front four of Ronaldo, Dybala, Kulusevski and Morata is terrifying, but the former takes a knock thanks to the close attentions of Di Lorenzo and is forced off. This brings on Chiesa, hardly a terrible change for them, yet still they can’t pierce our goal.
Pressing deeper in the second half, we are able to hurt them on the break. We get a corner, which results in a second Garcia headed goal, almost an identical one to his first. Later still, a counter-attack sees Politano pump the ball forward to Gabriel Martinelli, who’s on for Edouard and is dashing through the visitors’ defence. A glorious shot into the top corner makes it 3-0, which is fantastic way to finish the tie.
Going to Turin and prevailing will no doubt be a challenge, however we’ve given ourselves a fine cushion and hopefully we can do it. In the other tie, Lazio put three past Inter and will take an identical scoreline to ourselves over to the Giuseppe Meazza. This result does much to raise morale in the camp. The game was played before a capacity crowd and the supporters are chuffed with what they’ve seen. There’s a renewed spring in our step as we head towards the away game against Cittadella at the weekend.
Juve beat Sampdoria, so once again there’s a requirement on us to produce. Jeremie Boga makes the starting line-up so that I can rest Insigne for the Old Lady rematch. Boga’s fellow Africans, Koulibaly and Osimhen, are returned to us following their Cup of Nations exploits. Neither comes back with an especially good tale. Nigeria were beaten by Togo in the Semi-Final and then lost the subsequent third-place playoff. The Togolese went one step better, winning the Final 2-1 against Kouli’s Senegal team. The beaten finalists have every right to be disappointed. They were pre-tournament favourites, and to lose at the last hurdle is sickening. Neither returnee is fit enough to make the starting line-up against Cittadella but they are named on the bench. It’s good to be able to call upon an almost fully able side once again. Now, only Lozano – out for up to a further three weeks – is unavailable.
Unless we put six past Cittadella I’m going to get pelters from the media here. We actually win 2-0, a fairly straightforward display of power in which I get to see the best and the worst from Jeremie Boga. The move in which he scores starts when he passes to a home defender. Dashing back to pinch possession back, he then gets himself into position to slot home the goal that puts us in front. Very much later on, Kostas Manolas scores from a free-kick, and it’s done. A routine victory; perhaps not the show of dazzling football that everyone hopes to see from us, but a strong outing that maintains the pressure on Juve. One of us will crack eventually, but who?
At Juventus Stadium we are helped by the home team opting not to really try until the second half. The best chances fall to us, and while we fail to score I’m happy enough for things to remain at 0-0. After the break Pochettino’s rocket up their backsides results in a more positive display; still nothing to show for it though, and some stiff defensive work sees us safely over the line. We’ll take on Lazio in the Final, after they produce a 1-1 draw with Internazionale. Though the venue for the May showpiece is a neutral one, by unhappy chance the Olimpico has been pre-selected, meaning we will need to win at Lazio’s home ground.
Still, all that’s a concern for another day. It’s straight back to league commitments for us, and a home draw against Brescia. In the relegation zone and routinely suffering nosebleeds whenever they enter the opposition half, this should be straightforward, and it is when we emerge from a 6-0 shellacking. We’re one-up in the first couple of minutes after a messy goalmouth scramble sees the luckless Jesse Joronen poke the ball over his own goal-line. Victor Osimhen scores from close range soon after that, and before the break Gaetano Castrovilli nets directly from a twenty-five yard free-kick. Odsonne Edouard replaces Osimhen at half-time to build on his match fitness and scores his first two for Napoli, before Fabian caps off the victory with a bullet shot from distance. It’s a great all-round performance, a morale-booster, and even the hard-pressed Partenopei board claim to be happy with this showing.
The good news keeps on coming, as we thrill to Roma’s 2-0 victory over Juventus later that evening. Edin Dzeko’s brace causes the damage. We’ve regained the edge in Serie A. Elsewhere, Uncle Carlo is sacked by Milan after leading them to tenth place. This prompts me to look at the available jobs out there – Fulham and Sevilla, neither of which especially appeals. With any luck, we can clinch the Coppa and then I will be able to look at vacancies more seriously.
In midweek our thoughts turn to Europe, our Champions League tie with Zenit St Petersburg. The evening before, Juve lose again, a 3-1 home reverse against Bayern – are they beginning to crack? We’re in Mother Russia, unsure of what to expect against the team from their capital. They field a pair of former Premier League centre-backs – Dejan Lovren and Davinson Sanchez – and their star man is Sardar Azmoun, an Iranian international striker who has reaped twelve goals from thirteen league appearances. We also need to pay our respects to midfielder Daler Kuzyaev, a tough box to box presence; the scouts rate him very highly, and he seems to be their beating heart, a highly determined presence.
The game is played in near-freezing conditions. Sheets of sleet welcome us into the Saint Petersburg Stadium, and it’s perhaps this – being removed from our preferred climes of Mediterranean loveliness – that blunts our attacking spark. Lots of shots, not many of them on target, our best chances coming from set-piece headers that Manolas and Koulibaly fail to put away. At the other end the anticipated clash between Meret and Azmoun turns out to be over-hyped, in reality not much a factor. It’s 0-0, a scoreline I would normally be upset about but I am able to tell the players that they were unlucky rather than not good enough. We’ll complete the round in early March.
We cough up first place at the weekend, when we’re playing in Genoa. It all seems to be going well early in the second period when Insigne fires in a dramatic cross that Odsonne Edouard powers into the net. Minutes later, Insigne wins a dubious penalty, but his shot is parried into touch by the keeper. This ends up being decisive, when a late equaliser from Prince-Desir Gouano serves as a decisive body blow. Surprisingly, the defender who misses his challenge and allows the scoring opportunity is Koulibaly, who’s about as reliable as we can ever get. I guess anyone can have a day off, even the best of them, but it matters as our efforts to pummel Genoa back down fail to produce a breakthrough and we have to accept a 1-1 result.
Our catch-up game is away to Torino. They’re now in nineteenth place, the implication being that Andrea Belotti made all the difference and, without him, they’re toothless. Last season’s league leading scorer is now with Liverpool and has made a pale handful of appearances, maintaining a decent rate of converting his chances but far from the unstoppable force that he was in Turin. After Genoa I’m keen for us to make amends and we do, putting four unanswered goals past the opposition and generating a further slew of chances. Eljif Elmas, who is hankering after a new contract, scores early. Riccardo Orsolini gets a brace, one of his better ‘running everywhere at once’ showings, and Lorenzo Insigne pads out his personal account with a nice, close range finish. As a consequence of this one, we pay Bologna £3.7 million, a clause in the deal that landed Orsolini into our laps. It’s his fiftieth Napoli appearance, and he’s been splendid.
We’re back in first place and there’s a need to retain it, with Lazio at home completing the month. We’re able to name Lozano on our bench for this one. The Mexican hasn’t taken part since December, when he was in fine fettle for us. I think we will need his versatility and scouring nous before the campaign is done. Lazio are in third place, a long, long way off the pace but gaining points at a fine rate of around two per game and in Luis Alberto showcase an unimpeachable star. Milinkovic-Savic, Correa and Immobile constitute further attacking talent, but hopefully they are less capable at the back.
As it is Simone Inzaghi seems to sense his own side’s deficiencies by fielding an overly defensive formation. Three centre-backs, two wing-backs and a defensive midfielder, with Correa and Immobile set out as remote figures in attack. The channels to their front two aren’t obvious, and we are able to cut them off with some ease while putting two past Strakosha to win the day. A brilliantly worked move finds Riccardo Orsolini’s shot clipping the post before going in, and later Kostas Manolas heads beyond the keeper from an Insigne corner to complete the victory. The Romans are tricky opposition, so to prevail here is really important.
Luis Enrique is named as the new Milan boss. We’ll take them on next weekend. Juve put five past Torino to maintain the pressure and ensure that we need to get a good result at the San Siro. For the time being, we can be happy with a three-point lead in the division. It’s been hard fought. We will play our main rivals for the trophy in March, a fixture that is looking increasingly decisive in the destination of this season’s title.