By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
It was on February 28, 2011 that Napoli went to league leaders AC Milan without their suspended star Ezequiel Lavezzi and came back with nothing. To many, that 3-0 loss was the end of the Azzurri’s outside chance of clinching the Scudetto as the Rossoneri instead tightened their hold on top spot and eventually wrapped up the title with two weeks to spare.
One year on, and with Lavezzi leading the charge, the Partenopei all but ended Inter’s chances of claiming a Champions League spot while boosting their own claim for third place. There are now nine points between the fast-fading Lombardy side and the top three, and while ‘El Pocho’ and friends prepare for a fascinating finale to the season, the visitors’ latest insipid performance could see Claudio Ranieri out of a job.
Tasked with catapulting the Nerazzurri back into the reckoning for the top three after their disastrous start to the campaign under Gian Piero Gasperini, the Tinkerman looked to have exceeded all expectations only a month ago. As Ranieri went to bed on January 28, his Inter side sat in fourth place, three points behind Udinese with a game in hand. When he woke up the next day, his nightmare began.
But that Sunday’s defeat to Lecce was only the start, and after throwing away the lead three times in a 4-4 draw with Palermo, Inter have lost five straight games, conceding 11 goals since they found the net last. Their losing streak matches the club’s all-time record. Their four-game scoreless run in Serie A is a 25-year low. Their need for new players and new ideas is palpable. And their inferiority to Napoli was astonishingly clear.
Inter were abysmal at the San Paolo. Short of ideas, short of confidence and short of direction, they rarely looked like getting anything from the game. In fact, it wasn’t until the dying stages that they had a really clear chance, and when they did, Giampaolo Pazzini summed up their general malaise by missing the simplest of opportunities from eight yards. An injury-time penalty claim could have gone either way, but would have done little more than mask the real issues. And besides, on current form, where's the guarantee they would have scored from the spot anyway?
|MATCH FACTS | Napoli 1-0 Inter
Ranieri’s return to his old tinkering ways continued too. A month after stating he needs to find a way to get Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan firing in his first XI, he abandoned the idea at half-time, withdrawing both and switching to a back three similar to the one which caused many of the problems Inter experienced under Gasperini. The Roman clearly never learns, and the old heave-ho may not be far away after his latest act of folly.
But in Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, Inter faced opponents who were always going to punish them eventually. The inevitable happened in the 59th minute. Cavani picked up the ball midway into the Nerazzurri half and fed Blerim Dzemaili. The midfielder surged forward, held off Lucio, and dinked a pass to Lavezzi with the outside of his boot. ‘El Pocho’ did the rest, guiding a perfect finish across Julio Cesar into the bottom corner of the net.
It has been said – by this writer and by others – that it’s Lavezzi’s finishing that doesn’t match the high standard he sets in other departments. But in grabbing four goals in his past three games, including two against Chelsea in the Champions League in midweek, he has shown that he has the composure as well as the explosiveness. And after recovering from the injury that saw him return to the pitch a month late from the winter break, he is as fresh as a daisy heading into the final third of the season.
With Lavezzi in this world class form, Napoli should not fear the five-point gap separating them from third-placed Udinese. Whereas a laboured finish in 2010-11 saw them settle for the top three, this term they seem ready to click through the gears in good time to make a concerted bid for the Champions League spots.
Add to that their significant 3-1 advantage over Chelsea in the last 16 in this year’s competition, and you have an anticipation about the Azzurri that hasn’t been felt in Naples since 1990. Now, as then, a mesmeric little Argentine is at the heart of that. Cavani will be the one on whom the goalscoring burden will fall, but Lavezzi is the man who makes the difference.
And he proved it in the past four days at the San Paolo. He was the difference between Napoli and Chelsea. He was the deciding factor once more against Inter. And he may well turn out to be the man who ensures that Ranieri no longer has a job.
With the final third of the season approaching, Inter have a huge few weeks ahead.Follow Kris Voakes on