The joy etched on the face of Napoli striker Ezequiel Lavezzi when he gave his team a 94th minute victory against Cagliari on Wednesday night is a feeling that is shared by the people of Naples at the moment. A football club with such a turbulent history is going through one of the best spells in recent memory, and are now third in Serie A after their latest triumph.
The midweek set of Serie A games would test the fitness of all teams concerned, but particularly the threadbare Napoli squad who have been used to Thursday night Europa League ties. A trip to Sardinia to face a struggling Cagliari side normally ought to be seen as a sure-fire three points, but Walter Mazzarri was again forced to rotate his weary players.
Morgan De Sanctis, as always, was the goalkeeper, but had the captain Paolo Cannavaro back in defence after he was rested. Salvatore Aronica and Fabiano Santacroce were also handed rare starts at the back. Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena, the regular right and left wingers respectively, were restored to the starting eleven after sitting out the weekend’s win over Parma. Hassan Yebda and Walter Gargano sat in central midfield with Marek Hamsik and Jose Sosa in the more attacking roles. Lavezzi, the eventual match-winner, was up-front alone, meaning top goalscorer Edinson Cavani was rested on the bench.
Cagliari, despite their lowly league position, had only conceded two Serie A goals at the Stadio Sant’Elia, and were looking good value for a point. It was a game of few opportunities on goal, with both sides seemingly tired from the previous weekend’s exertions. Cagliari, however, took a massive risk to throw bodies forward to snatch a win that dramatically backfired in Napoli’s favour. With virtually no Rossoblu defenders back, Napoli counter-attacked swiftly and Cavani, after coming on as a substitute, slipped in Lavezzi. The Argentine had a lot of ground to cover with defenders bearing down on him, but found the strength to smash the ball into the bottom corner with the last kick of the game.
Lavezzi incredulously dived into the advertising boards in front of the travelling support following the only goal of the game, demonstrating the passion that the diminutive striker is currently playing with. The 25-year-old has added a genuine goal threat to his game this season, the area which Napoli fans questioned about him in seasons past.
Last term, Lavezzi played up-front with Fabio Quagliarella, who is now at Juventus. Both players tended to prefer dropping off, finding the ball outside the area and creating chances as well as scoring. Neither had the predatory instincts of Cavani this season. Lavezzi’s new partner is an out-and-out centre-forward, and has scored goals to prove it. In turn, this has allowed Lavezzi to play his natural game without feeling a goalscoring burden that he was never capable of fulfilling. It seems both strikers are reaping the rewards of Mazzarri’s faith in them, and Lavezzi even attracted praise from the great Diego Maradona last week, who claimed his iconic No10 shirt should be given to the little Argentinean.
After his dramatic late winner that sunk Cagliari, Lavezzi beamed: “I don’t know whether to tell you if this is my most important goal since I started playing for Napoli. It’s certainly a very important goal because we got the three points.
“We made a real effort and an enormous sacrifice. We were practically playing with nine men given the knocks to Salvatore Aronica and Hugo Campagnaro. We won a very difficult game. We confirmed that we manage to do the things that we want to do because each of us fights and does best what we know how to do.”
Whisper it quietly, but there is a buzz around the Stadio San Paolo that hasn’t been present in years. Only the defeat by Milan, the only match against one of the alleged ‘big teams’ that Napoli have played so far this season, has put a dampener on what has otherwise been remarkably successful.
Napoli could even improve on their third place in the standings this coming weekend, when they have arguably their biggest domestic game of the campaign so far. Mazzarri will lead his men to the Stadio Olimpico to face Lazio, who were the shock leaders of Serie A for so long until losing their last two matches. With the Vesuviani on the upwards spiral and Lazio in falling down the table, Napoli could go second with a victory. Mazzarri won’t dare to dream it, but if Milan lose their weekend match too, Napoli could find themselves at the top of Serie A.