Matchday eight in Serie A closed out with the biggest game of the weekend between Napoli and AC Milan at Stadio San Paolo, with Gennaro Gattuso’s side aiming to do what no other Italian top flight side had achieved since March: beat the Rossoneri.
Aside from ending Milan’s unbeaten run in the league, the Azzurri needed a statement win over a top side to banish events of a recent defeat on home turf to Sassuolo.
In addition, that was how their non-appearance away at Juventus in early October saw the side from Naples lose out on the chance to lay down a marker for the 2020/21 season.
Admittedly, there was a huge victory over Atalanta in mid-October, which came when the La Dea were flying in the league, however, matches following that 4-1 hammering indicate Gian Piero Gasperini’s troops aren’t quite the same side they were last term.
On a personal front, Kalidou Koulibaly had the perfect opportunity to face off with in-form megastar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who’d scored in all five appearances in the league before Sunday. The Swede had netted eight times already, so the Senegal centre-back wasn’t going to have a straightforward time at the back.
Having also missed out on a possible face-off with Cristiano Ronaldo, Koulibaly vs Zlatan represented one of the principal sub-plots as Milan looked for their first win in Naples in a decade.
The opening minute indicated how tight the West African would be to the 39-year-old, who needed all his ingenuity to get the better of the central defender 10 years his junior. The one-time Serie A best defender got the better of Ibrahimovic in their first aerial due in the seventh minute, although events about 60 seconds later demonstrated the forward’s quick-wittedness.
After Franck Kessie intercepted an under-hit pass from Matteo Politano, Ante Rebic received the ball from the Ivorian, before laying it on for Hakan Calhanoglu.
As the Turkey playmaker received possession, Zlatan immediately dropped deep into the space vacated by Tiemoue Bakayoko — who’d been drawn out of position briefly by Alexis Saelemaekers’ inside run — leaving Koulibaly in two minds whether to go with the forward or stay in position.
He half-heartedly pushed up, leaving Kostas Manolas with no choice but to mark Saelemaekers, as the space opened up in the inside-left channel. Ibrahimovic spotted Rebic’s run into that channel and released the Croat whose eventual shot was tame.
Koulibaly wasn’t punished for this indistinct error but that moment was a prescient warning for the 29-year-old defender, who struggled with the smart positions taken up by the forward for the majority of proceedings.
Indeed, this was apparent in both goals scored by the experienced frontman. For the first after 20 minutes, the Senegal centre-back had no idea where Zlatan was as Theo Hernandez prepared to send a cross into the box.
It’s commonly stated that a defender’s in trouble once the attacking player has a clear sight of his jersey number...and so it proved in this case, as the forward beat the West African to the delivery to deservedly send the visitors 1-0 ahead early on.
Strangely, K2 didn’t seem to carry that lesson with him for the rest of the game going by the striker’s second.
After Napoli lost the ball deep in the Milan half, as the visitors’ move developed with Calhanoglu driving forward, Koulibaly actually has Ibrahimovic in his sights when the Turk plays a smart through-ball into space for Rebic to run onto on the left-wing.
However, the smart Swede changed the trajectory of his run and positioned himself behind the centre-back and in front of left-back Mario Rui. Rebic then sent a brilliant cross to the forward who diverted the ball home with his right thigh to put the Rossoneri 2-0 up after 54 minutes.
Even though the Senegal centre-back could have done better, the striker’s cleverness to recognise the situation and station himself behind the two defenders was admirable, while Rebic’s delivery was top class.
Koulibaly had one of his less-impressive games of the season so far, losing four of five ground duels and five of seven aerial tussles. Zlatan had the beating of the Napoli man until his substitution with 11 minutes of normal time to play, whose odd weakness from corners especially was nearly exploited by the Swede and Simon Kjaer in the second half.
In the main, though, especially in possession, the centre-back thrived. He played six progressive passes — third-highest for the hosts — and completed 10 passes into the final third — only Fabian Ruiz with 13 successful passes played a higher volume.
He ranked third for ball-carrying towards the opposition goal while he sometimes moonlighted as a left-winger when the side struggled for an out ball in the opening 45 minutes.
Be that as it may, Koulibaly is paid to defend first and he seemed unable to cope with Ibrahimovic’s ingenuity at key moments on Sunday.
This ultimately led to Napoli’s second home loss on the trot as they finally surrendered a decade-long unbeaten run at San Paolo to the so-far irrepressible Milan.