By Kris Voakes at San Siro
It was as clinical as it was controversial. The performance of referee Gianluca Rocchi will be dissected long and hard across the length and breadth of Italy, but there can be no picking apart Napoli's display. Their 3-0 win at San Siro last night is proof positive that they are more than just contenders for the title now, particularly with Inter showing increasing signs of weakness.
Walter Mazzarri's men made the most of the situation presented to them with a superbly professional attitude, the likes of which they have not often delivered in their 17 years of winless visits to the city of Milan. And it now throws them amongst the favourites to win the title for the first time in 22 years.
It was the man in the middle who took centre stage in the first half though, and how! Rocchi took only 10 minutes to book Joel Obi for what seemed a perfectly clean tackle on Ezequiel Lavezzi, and by half-time he was to compound the Nigerian's misery. Retreating to deal with a typical Christian Maggio run, the Nerazzurro pushed his opponent to the ground from just outside the box. Maggio's stumble as he tried to keep his feet saw him go through the area and over the byeline. Rocchi wrongly pointed to the spot and flashed a red card. Inter were furious.
|MATCH FACTS | Inter 0-3 Napoli
Claudio Ranieri would also be sent off for his protestations, showing that the vehemance was being felt on the bench as well as on the pitch and in the stands. Meanwhile, Mazzarri and his players dealt with the whole powderkeg perfectly.
Although it is undoubtedly easier to cope with playing one man up than one down, Napoli could easily have been roped into the controversy, such was the atmosphere.
Instead, they rolled up their sleeves and played to the manual. Marek Hamsik saw his penalty parried away by Julio Cesar, but Hugo Campagnaro was quickest to the follow-up and it was 1-0. Video replays showed that the Argentine had given himself an illegal head-start, but so too had his compatriot Samuel. By the letter of the law, the kick should have been retaken, but compared to the awful decisions surrounding Obi, this was a minor oversight on Rocchi's part.
After the break Inter needed to show they could react well to the heated final five minutes of the opening period, but the visitors took a strangehold on the game. Gokhan Inler and Walter Gargano were both tireless and trend-setting. How the Uruguayan manages to continue flying under the radar when lists of the world's great midfielders are being compiled is beyond comprehension. He and Inler managed to embarrass Esteban Cambiasso and Zanetti in the pure ease with which they dominated the midfield battle.
Rocchi sends off Obi | The game-changer Napoli pounced upon like championsAt the back, Napoli suffered little. Once again, they managed to concede few clear-cut chances. Diego Forlan should have buried an early air-shot and Cristian Chivu ought to have got a head to Obi's cross, while Giampaolo Pazzini fought from start to finish, but there was just no beating Paolo Cannavaro, Salvatore Aronica and Campagnaro.
Cannavaro's fantastic defensive vision came to the fore either side of the game-changing red card, regularly spotting and snuffing out potentially killer balls through the channels to stave off the 18-time champions. He may not have the pace or presence to win all of his one-on-one contests, but the skipper proved in 90 minutes what it is he adds to his team.
With the platform set through the middle of defence and midfield, the Vesuviani went for the kill. On the one flank they had Juan Zuniga ripping past Douglas Maicon time and again, and on the other Maggio was able to get the better of substitute Yuto Nagatomo almost every time he was asked to get at the Japanese. One such run onto a lofted pass from Giuseppe Mascara caught Lucio and Samuel flat-footed and Nagatomo showed an inability to think quickly, allowing Maggio to steal in and add a second.
Inler's nonchalant skip past Cambiasso helped set up the killer third for Hamsik, but by that time it was obvious who were the Scudetto hopefuls and who were the work in progress. No longer are Napoli fazed by taking on the big names.
Last season they lost home and away to Milan and were dispatched with ease at San Siro by Inter, with their Champions-League-securing point in the return coming with Inter's season practically over. This time around they are a different animal. Missing Edinson Cavani, they could have easily decided to change their approach to favour a more cautious gameplan, but that kind of outlook is simply not in their vocabulary.
Napoli - Italy's most attacking, attractive side, are also the team to fear the most. Napoli - fuelled by their magnificent forward line, but fired up by their steely core. Napoli - Scudetto winners of 2011-12? With each new scalp, it seems more and more possible. They're one of the favourites now.
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