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Thursday, June 30, 2022

After Napoli’s latest slip, Serie A’s race will come down to Inter or Milan | Serie A

Amid a breathless finish to the Serie A season, spare a thought for your narrators who don’t know where to begin. In Empoli, where Napoli surrendered their title bid by conceding three times in seven minutes to opponents who had not won a game since December? Or at San Siro, where Inter thumped a Roma side led by Jose Mourinho, the man who led them to the treble, and who arrived on a 12-game unbeaten run?

Perhaps we should start in Rome, where Milan kept the title race alive with a 91st-minute strike from a 21-year-old midfielder who almost signed for Inter? Then again, was the most memorable image of this weekend not the one from Salernitana’s Stadio Arechi, where Davide Nicola threw his shoe in frustration before clutching it on the sideline and menacing his players to improve?

Even without such meme material, the manager deserves to be noticed. Nicola took over Salernitana in February, inheriting a team who were last Serie A with three wins from 23 games. They have doubled that number in the last eight days, beating Sampdoria, Udinese and Fiorentina. The same person previously rescued Crotone from the drop after sitting on 14 points after 29 games. He saved Genoa and Torino in the past two seasons as well.

How could our attention linger long on the bottom of the table, though, when there is so much happening at the top? Inter’s victory over Roma on Saturday felt at the time like a decisive step toward retaining their title, an emphatic 3-1 victory over opponents who had not lost a league game since January.

Mourinho was expected to take centre stage on this latest return to his old stomping ground, yet the most telling moment of the evening might have arrived in the 73rd minute, when a San Siro crowd that had scarcely acknowledged him – outside of a brief applause when his name was read out by the PA – opened up in a full-throated chorus of his name.

As Mourinho said himself at full-time, the chant arrived only “when the fans were not afraid of us anymore.” By then, Inter were 3-0 up and cruising, having buried the Giallorossi with goals from Denzel Dumfries, Marcelo Brozovic and Lautaro Martínez. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s late consolation for Roma arrived only after Simone Inzaghi had subbed off four starters, resting legs for Wednesday’s game against Bologna.

Inter’s show of strength arrived just three days after they had eliminated Milan from the Coppa Italia with a 3-0 win in the semi-final’s second leg. Inzaghi confessed he had “feared this match” coming so soon after the derby, but his players showed no such nerves.

José Mourinho congratulates Simone Inzaghi after Roma’s unbeaten run is ended by Inter.
José Mourinho congratulates Simone Inzaghi after Roma’s unbeaten run is ended by Inter. Photograph: Antonio Calanni/AP

Now the pressure shifted to Napoli and Milan. The Partenopei had the easier fixture, on paper, facing an Empoli team who were without a win in 17 matches across all competitions. But the devil was in the detail. Their last league victory had come against Napoli, at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

A repeat did not appear likely as Napoli took control with goals from Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne either side of half-time. But with 10 minutes to go, they self-destructed.

First Kevin Malcuit gave the ball away, initiating an Empoli move that ended with Liam Henderson drilling a shot into the bottom corner. Then the goalkeeper, Alex Meret, dawdled over a clearance, offering Andrea Pinamonti a chance to block. The ball rebounded off the striker and rolled across the line for 2-2.

Pinamonti completed the turnaround when he slid in to convert a cross from the right. How fitting that it should be him, a striker on loan from Inter, doing his bit to help his parent club hold on to their title. With 12 Serie A goals, the 22-year-old is making his case to be given a chance back at San Siro next season.

When Milan fell a goal behind after just four minutes at Lazio in Sunday’s evening game, it felt as though the title race might be ending. Scoring goals has been a struggle for the Rossoneri, just times in the preceding eight games, so a comeback could never be straightforward.

Although they quickly pressed their opponents into retreat after Ciro Immobile’s opener, every action seemed rushed, all composure deserting them when a final ball was needed. The picture changed only after the interval, when Rafael Leão tamed a long pass from Theo Hernández, took a touch and cut back a pass toward the near corner of the six-yard box.

Arriving was Olivier Giroud. Him again, a striker who had only scored eight times this season for Milan and yet somehow always seems to show up when Milan need him most – away to Napoli, at home to Roma and most famously with a pair of goals in the derby win over Inter this February. He slid in to beat a wrong-footed Thomas Strakosha.

The match was in Rome but a protest by home supporters against ticket price hikes meant there were more Milan fans inside the Olimpico. The volume raised and so did the pressure on the Lazio goal, Junior Messias firing a shot just wide and Leão demanding a reaction save from the keeper. A draw was not good enough. Only a win would put Milan back two points ahead of Inter at the top, pending their rivals’ game in hand.

They found it in injury-time, Tonali showing impressive balance as he controlled a knock-down on his thigh while falling backwards, getting just enough on the ball to send it over the line. He tore off his shirt as he ran to his team’s supporters.

It was the story of a season captured in a weekend. Mourinho has an acknowledged bias toward Inter, but his assessment on Saturday that they are “the strongest” team in Serie A rings true. Their superior talent defined the game against Roma, who had no answers to the control and creativity of Brozovic, Hakan Calhanoglu and Nicolò Barella in the middle nor to Ivan Perisic and Denzel Dumfries on the flanks.

Napoli are one of few teams who can boast a comparably talented first XI, but in key moments of the season, they have simply been too brittle. Milan, despite continued improvement from young core, are probably still a step behind in their development, but have stayed the course with a blend of youthful defiance embodied by Tonali and decisive contributions from the veteran Giroud.

How this tale ends remains open. Inter have the easier run-in, facing only teams from the bottom half of the table, whereas Milan’s opponents all currently occupy a spot in the top 10. Inzaghi’s team also control their own destiny and will go top if they beat Bologna on Wednesday. But Milan have the points on the board.

“Winning doesn’t mean that things are easy now,” said Nicola as he reflected on Salernitana’s resurgence at the other end of the table. “This is when the difficult bit starts.”

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