Credit: George Woes JR
Napoli hosted its first league game after the tragic death of the legend Diego Maradona. For the last few days the roads of Naples had been flooded by the public paying homage to the man who carried them to the first ever Serie A title in 1987. The man Napoli dubbed ‘the saviour’ and their former captain was immortalised. If we had not been in the midst of one of the most forgettable years then fans could have fittingly been present to join in with the applause and the silence to honour who many believe to be the greatest player to ever play the beautiful game. Nonetheless the supporters at home will know he was watching over them, and the scene was set for something special on Sunday night.
Napoli won 2-0 at home on Thursday in the Europa League against Croatian outfit Rijeka, and they had tried their best to get local boy and club captain Lorenzo Insigne on the scoresheet, but he could not find the net.
Playing Roma was his second chance to make Maradona smile from heaven. After Maradona’s death Insigne said“Diego will represent a lot for me and for the Neapolitans. He has always defended us when he played here, when he left, he always brought Napoli and the Neapolitans to the heart. We have always carried it in our hearts: it hurts; it’s a sad day for us”, (Source: calciomercato.com).
Roma came to the Stadio San Paulo in fourth place and unbeaten in the league since the opening day, when they fell to a 3-0 defeat away at Hellas Verona. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is playing some of the best football in his career with five goals in the two games prior to go with four assists overall.
New signing Pedro who came on a free from Chelsea, has settled quickly and things were looking bright in what could well go on to be the most open and exciting race for the Scudetto in recent memory. Napoli needed to bounce back after being punished at home by AC Milan last time out in the league, losing 3-1 as the Rossoneri continued their resurgence under Stefano Pioli.
In regards to team news; Napoli had Tiemoue Bakayoko suspended after he was sent off against Milan so in came Diego Demme in midfield, while up front new signing Victor Osimhen was still out injured with a dislocated shoulder. Roma welcomed back captain Edin Dzeko who started his first league game since November the 1st, but at the back Chris Smalling was still out.
The ambience through the stadium was infectious just before the teams came out. Images of Maradona surrounded the Stadio San Paulo, as well as banners and flags. ‘Adios’ was spelt as ‘AD10S’, to celebrate Diego and the famous number 10 shirt that the club retired after he left. Napoli sported a new striped shirt rather than their usual light blue tops to commemorate Maradona, with the shirt looking like an Argentinian jersey replica. There was also as expected a minutes’ silence before the game.
The first ten minutes were rather tentative from both sides, but it was clear Roma wanted to play a high line. In the 10th minute there was a beautiful gesture as the game was stopped so both sides could applaud Maradona. Both teams had efforts but they were either tame ones straight at the keeper, or fired well over. Then on the half hour mark Napoli hit Roma with a swift counter attack and Roger Ibanez had to haul down Dries Mertens to prevent Napoli bursting into the box. Captain Insigne stood over the ball ominously and given the occasion it seemed inevitable he would score. Insigne curled the ball up and over the wall and it beat Antonio Mirante on his near post to give Gennaro Gattuso’s men the lead.
A few minutes later Roma’s Bryan Cristante could only fire over, then there was more problems for Paulo Fonseca’s men. Cristante a central midfielder was playing in defence due to injuries, and defender Gianluca Mancini had to be substituted after pulling up in pain. Four minutes before half time, it was almost 2-0. Mirante, who if he was at fault on the goal was at his best to deny Mertens down low, the Belgian that being said should have done better with his finish. Roma had been disappointing and maybe they were overwhelmed, but this did not look like a team who had won 8 out of their last 10 games in all competitions.
Roma looked a little livelier to begin the second half, but the first real chance fell to Napoli as Hirving Lozano had his shot saved by Mirante at the near post after 49 minutes. Roma did not get their first corner until the 55thminute, showing how they were being outplayed, and it was soon to be 2-0 in the 64th minute. Mario Rui’s deft flick set Insigne on his way and his pass was controlled and fired low from outside the box by Fabian Ruiz through Juan Jesus’ legs. Mirante was wrong-footed and the ball looked like it had gone wide but it nestled in the bottom corner.
(Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne dedicated his goal to Maradona. Image from ‘goal.com’/’DAZN’)
The pain was to worsen for Roma. Piotr Zielinski who was arguably the best player on the pitch in the first half came off for Eljif Elmas. Within three minutes of being on, Elmas shot after being found by another substitute Matteo Politano, the effort was saved only for Mertens to slam in the rebound for 3-0. Then four minutes from timePolitano seized on a loose ball and waltz through Roma’s defence, splitting two defenders in the process before rounding Mirante for 4-0, another goal that Maradona would have been proud of. There was to be no injury time added as the referee Marco Di Bello blew the whistle on 89 minutes and 59 seconds, as even he was fed up of this Roma performance and did not want them to be beaten up anymore.
So it was the perfect response to the Milan defeat by Gattuso’s team, and a lovely tribute to the one and only Maradona. Maradona was the man who made Napoli believe anything was achievable. And they were never going to lose this match, it just meant too much to them and they were easily the hungrier team. Rest in peace Diego.