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Andrew Murray On September - 22 - 2011

Tougher Tests Ahead for Edinson Cavani And Napoli

Serie A Weekly welcomes back writer Andrew Murray who will be covering Team of the Week and as well as other topics…

Napoli shot to the top of Serie A on Sunday night as a classic counter-attacking performance and an Edinson Cavani secured a 3-1 victory over champions AC Milan. The Partenopei showed few signs of a European hangover after Wednesday’s Champions League tie, and it was Milan’s players rather than Napoli’s who looked sluggish and short of inspiration.

Massmiliano Allegri has pointed to injuries and refereeing decisions as the reasons for his side’s demise, but the Rossoneri were poor throughout. They created little despite their 63% possession, passed with little to no urgency and looked devoid of ideas in the final third.  Alberto Aquilani’s headed opener was superb but Milan were pegged within a minute and squandered the few chances they created later on. Allegri has written the performance off as an “anomaly,” but Milan are already five points adrift of Napoli and can’t afford many more of these ponderous displays.

As mediocre as Milan were, the result owed as much to the effectiveness of Napoli’s counter-attacks as it did Milan’s inability to break the Partenopei down. Walter Mazzarri’s low-pressing tactics drew Milan up the pitch, giving Napoli plenty of room to spring their counter-attacks. The Rossoneri were forced to play into Neapolitan hands and were continually stung for their lack of pace.

Gokhan Inler and Walter Gargano were excellent throughout. Inler has added steel to Napoli’s midfield and his quality on the ball means he fits right into Mazzarri’s first XI. He and Gargano acted as an impregnable barrier to Milan’s attempts at pushing forward, with the Uruguayan providing the drive and thrust for Cavani’s second goal.

Christian Maggio was a constant threat as Napoli’s right wingback, regularly exposing Milan’s narrowness creating the equalising assist. Hugo Campagnaro and Morgan De Sanctis also had solid displays, but a certain Uruguayan was the unquestionable star of the show.

Edinson Cavani is developing into one of the world’s best centre forwards. The focal point of Napoli’s attacks, Cavani scored a whopping 33 goals in all competitions last season and has already scored 4 in 3 games this term. Strong, quick and a lethal finisher, Cavani has thrived since arriving at the San Paolo and now has Napoli hat-tricks against Sampdoria, Lazio, Juventus and Milan to his name. The Partenopei did well to hold onto their number 7 this summer, but if Sunday’s performance is anything to go by then interest in the ex-Palermo forward is only likely to soar.

He took his goals well. For the first, Cavani struck a Maggio knockdown header first-time from an acute angle to send the ball skimming through Christian Abbiati’s legs, and the fans’ fervent celebrations were but a sign of things to come. Cavani rounded-off a typical Napoli counter-attack by smashing a near-post strike high into the net at 36′, before completing his hat-trick with an outstanding 15-yard volley 6 minutes into the second half.

Is there a more effective out-and-out striker in world football than Edinson Cavani at the moment? The Uruguayan has done well to carry last season’s form forward to his campaign, and his ball-striking technique is astonishing. He’s in the form of his life and undoubtedly an excellent centre forward, but his greatest tests will come in the absence of his chief creators.

Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik provide much of Cavani’s ammunition, and Cavani struggled for form when Lavezzi missed games last season. Hamsik didn’t have his best game on Sunday but provided 7 assists last season and his forward runs are pivotal in bringing the ball forward to the Uruguayan. Cavani has always been more of a finisher than an architect, and much of Napoli’s success this season will hinge on his ability to score goals without Hamsik and Lavezzi’s assistance.

All-in-all, the Partenopei have made a great start to the season. They overcame a spirited Cesena on the opening day, matched Man City last Wednesday and put Milan to the sword on Sunday. The Milan result is huge: Napoli lost 2-1 and 3-0 to the Rossoneri last season, and it looks like Walter Mazzarri has found the formula to trump Allegri’s side. Whether Napoli can repeat the feat against a full-strength Milan remains to be seen, but they’ve shown the rest of Serie A that sitting deep and launching quick, incisive counter-attacks can topple the Scudetto holders.

Walter Mazzarri has honed his system to a tee. Napoli have always launched exciting counter-attacks under his tutelage but the system looks more effective than ever this season. Napoli are in a great position to launch their strongest title charge since their last Scudetto win in 1990, but it’s very early days. Mazzarri successfully exposed Milan’s lack of dynamism, but how will they perform, for example, against Antonio Conte’s resurgent Juventus? How about Champions League ties with Bayern Munich and Villarreal, or the return leg against Man City’s fluid and exciting forward line?

There’s a long way to go, and the journey continues with a trip to Verona this evening. Chievo have caused the Partenopei plenty of problems lately and a 2-0 defeat at the Stadio Bentegodi put a serious dent in last season’s title charge. This tricky fixture should tell us all we need to know about this Napoli side: they’ve beaten last year’s champions, now do they have the mettle to overcome last year’s bogey team?

Mazzarri, to his credit, recognises the enormity of making a title challenge. He noted in Sunday’s post-match interviews that his side need to adopt a more proactive, authoritative approach if they are to join the elite. They can’t afford to rest on their laurels: beating AC Milan is worth little if they can’t defeat the likes of Chievo. 2011-12 is only in its embryonic stages, and there’ll be plenty of toil before its over.

That’s not to say they can’t do it. A productive Mercato has left Mazzarri with a squad that’s stronger than that which finished 3rd last year. Goran Pandev’s arrival is pivotal and the Macedonian’s presence should help ease the pressure on Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsi. Marco Donadel and Blerim Dzemaili give Mazzarri more options in midfield, Inler’s class has already been noted and Mario Santana is a useful attacking option. Losing Michele Pazienza to Juventus is a blow and Miguel Britos’ injury leaves short at the back, but Napoli should be able to weather all but the worst injury crises.

The Partenopei are rightly being touted as title contenders but it’s important to retain perspective. It was only seven years ago that Aurelio De Laurentiis saved Napoli SSC from extinction and there’s still a lot of work to do. The Milan victory shows the progress Napoli have made this year, but they shouldn’t be considered Scudetto favourites all of a sudden.

As good as his team is, Mazzarri has made it clear that the Partenopei are still very much a work-in-progress. Napoli are definite title contenders and a threat to anybody, but lets see how they do against Chievo before jumping to any conclusions.

Update: Napoli lost to Chievo 1-nil Wednesday after Mazzarri had chosen to rest several of his key players, include Lavezzi who was managing an injury already but nevertheless played in that all important season beginning showdown against champions Milan.

Following paper headline reads,  Destructive turnover in Chievo 1-0 beating, Knockout for Maggio and Dzemaili, FORCE RAGAZZI OFF AGAIN

Andrew Murray

Scottish football writer with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for all things calcio. Visit for more from Andrew.

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