Tonight in Sardinia, there was a rare feeling for Napoli, they going into a game without knowing the Juventus result. This presented an opportunity to create a four point gap at the top of the table, and although Juventus have the postponed game in hand against Atalanta to play, psychologically this was a big moment for Napoli to put the ball in the court of ‘la Vecchia Signora’. The statistics pointed to a 10th srtraight Napoli win, with Cagliari only managing three points in their previous eleven games.
The opening of the game was fast paced and frantic, with both sides trying to get on the front foot and establish their attacking game. After three minutes, Allan pinched the ball and after some neat interplay involving Hamsik and Insigne, the latter whipped a ball in and Callejón was caught in two minds whether to shoot or cross, and in the end he did neither. Hamsik was linking well with Insigne on the left hand side, creating 2 vs 1 advantages in dangerous areas of the pitch. After a one two with Hamsik, Insigne set Allan who lifted the ball back over the top to him but he snatched at the chance. Some short and sharp football involving Jorginho, Mertens and Allan saw a Napoli counter attack. Hamsik initially combined well with Insigne, but overhit the return pass and Cragno gathered.
Then Cagliari began to get into the game. They worked the ball wide to Faragó who delivered a wonderful ball for Pavoletti, who had ghosted in between Hysajs and Albiol, but he never caught the ball cleanly. This was clearly a tactic for Cagliari, who looked to build up on their left before switching out to Faragó, getting early deliveries into the box to Pavoletti and Ham.
Tactically, Cagliari locked on to Napoli for goal kicks, forcing Reina to clip the ball long. Against SPAL, Koulibaly stepped forward and played a key role in trying to break down their stubborn low block, interestingly when he stepped out, Han was attempting to show him inside the pitch, an area they were able to go man for man with Napoli. However, this is easier said than done with the quality Napoli possess in central midfield. Additionally, the big danger area for Cagliari in a 3-5-2 formation was the wide areas, specifically that space in behind the wing backs and the area that no centre back wants to have to step out and defend in. In the end, this is where Napoli punished Cagliari whose back three really struggled to get to grips with Napoli’s front three movement.
A Napoli attack saw a Mertens shot deflect behind for a corner. Rui’s out swinging ball broke to Mertens in the penalty box but Lykogiannis got a handful of his jersey, which done enough to unbalance him and he dragged the shot wide. 100% a penalty in my opinion, but no VAR was called and Mertens was left frustrated.
It seemed just a matter of time before Napoli were going to get their goal. And they were almost gifted a chance by Cragno who fluffed his clearance straight to Insigne. He found Mertens, who set the ball back to Hamsik, whose shot was well blocked by the retreating Cagliari players.
Callejón was finding great space in behind the Cagliari back line and after making his trademark run he was found by Insigne, but his well executed volley was not only well saved by Cragno, he was a fraction offside as well.
Cagliari almost took the lead when Napoli were caught out of position by a long throw, Pavoletti played a through ball for Han but Reina was sharp and snuffed out the danger, although the ball fell nicely to Pavoletti who saw a great first time effort just clear the cross bar from 30 yards out.
Napoli then tried their luck down the right hand side, Hysajs’s barnstorming run saw the ball break to Callejón who floated a ball into the penalty area, Mertens attacked the ball awkwardly and saw his effort bounce past the near post.
Then the breakthrough.
Allan, who was the best player on the park against SPAL, lead by example yet again by pressing and hustling Padoin out of possession before driving down the right hand side of the penalty area. He gets his head up early and pulls the ball back to the supporting Callejón, who swept the ball beautifully into the bottom corner of the far post. A wonderful clean strike of the ball, his ninth of the season and Napoli in front.
The game was put further out of Cagliari’s reach three minutes before half time. A poor defensive header from Romagna found the feet of Hysajs who delivered a ball back across the six yard box where Mertens pounced at the near post to grab his seventh goal in the last nine games across all competitions.
Into the second half, Napoli dealt with a small Cagliari fight back, by taking the sting out the game with some great possession football. Their positioning, movement and quality is something truly to be admired. During one spell, Napoli kept the ball for twenty plus passes before the ball arrived to Mertens on the half way line, who had peeled off Cepitelli. He set Allan, who found Hamsik who in turn laid it out wide to the advancing Insigne. He drove toward the Cagliari goal before cutting the ball back with the outside of his right boot to Hamsik who had continued his run. He majestically stepped onto the ball and curled it into the top corner of Cragno’s near post. Expertly dispatched for his 99th Serie A goal. No VAR or corner flag controversy this time.
Reina was briefly called into action in 65th minute, tipping over a well struck Lykogiannis free kick.
But soon after it was 4-0.
A Napoli counter attack involving Insigne, Hamsik and Callejón eventually saw Insigne’s goal bound effort blocked by Castan’s arm. After his pleas fell on deaf ears, Insigne stepped up and dispatched the penalty well. Power and accuracy, with the ball finding the side net, Cragno with no chance.
With the game all but over, Sarri used the opportunity to rest some key players with Mertens, Hysaj and Jorginho all coming off in preparation for Saturday’s clash with Roma.
Callejón, looking for his 10th goal and now as the centre forward curved a great run and was found by the excellent Insigne, but he pulled his left footed effort just past the post.
After a driving run from the substitute Zielinski, Mario Rui got involved in the goal scoring action with a beautifully hit free kick. Up and over the wall, his team mates reaction said it all!
At this point (despite adding on three minutes), the referee called time in the Sardenga Arena.
An expected but emphatic result for Napoli. With goals spread out around the team, much improved individual performances from the SPAL game and a four point cushion going into the weekend tie against Roma, it was the perfect preparation.
By Craig Nisbet Follow @Nizzy_23