Napoli vs. Inter's blockbuster clash could shine light on Serie A title race
It'll be interesting to learn what Luciano Spalletti made of Napoli's performance in Manchester on Tuesday night. The Inter coach will have noticed that Maurizio Sarri left two of his first choice midfield players, Jorginho and Allan, out of the starting line-up against City, no doubt with Saturday's top-of-the-table clash in mind. He will also have seen how City made Napoli look so unlike Napoli -- for 25 minutes, at least.
No one has ever stopped Napoli being themselves in the manner City did early on at the Etihad. They were inches away from being 4-0 down as Pep Guardiola showed Spalletti how you go about beating Napoli's press. Ask your full-back to come inside and play next to your deepest-lying midfielder, daring one of Napoli's midfielders to leave David Silva or Kevin de Bruyne free between the lines. Keep your wingers wide on the touchline and pull Napoli's defence so far apart that holes appear for midfield runners.
It sounds oh so simple, but it's not. As Sarri explained before the game: "City can seem unbalanced, but they never are."
What tips Spalletti picked up from watching City are obviously counterbalanced by the limits of his own team. He doesn't have the players Guardiola can call upon and won't be able to replicate the same dynamic, even with wingers like Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva. Besides, Spalletti has his own ideas about how the game should be played. The only teams to play like City are Guardiola teams, and on Tuesday night, there were flashes of Barcelona's first-half performance against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2010 -- partly because the opponent came back into the game after being totally outclassed in the opening stages.
Afterward, Guardiola maintained his prematch stance that Napoli are among the best teams in Europe: "one of the best I've faced as a manager." Not for the first time this season, Napoli showed character and fighting spirit. Counterintuitively, Dries Mertens' missed penalty didn't result in Napoli heads going down. Instead it sparked them to life and it looked like they might come back as they had done in games against SPAL, Atalanta and Lazio.
Maybe City's tiredness played a part in that; it was the third game in a row Guardiola had named the same starting XI. But all of a sudden, Napoli resembled a team closer to their old selves again, and they left England in a positive frame of mind on the back of a valiant second-half performance albeit with hopes of qualification compromised.
Sarri had three regrets -- "the result, the missed penalty and the opening 25 minutes"-- but claimed to see "a huge improvement respect to [Real] Madrid last year" when Napoli took the lead at the Bernabeu and the San Paolo. "It's a game that has to give us enthusiasm, strength and morale." For the most part the papers agreed, although the headline in Il Corriere della Sera ("Napoli are almost City") felt like a bit of a stretch. After coming through it with their dignity intact and without the five-goal beatdowns City have made routine for Etihad visitors, Napoli's blue balloon continues to fly high despite a turbulent evening.
The risk was that City could have popped it and planted the same seeds of doubt that Guardiola's Bayern sewed in Rudi Garcia and Roma three years ago. The Giallorossi were never the same after a cycle in Pep's tumble dryer and they're worth a brief mention because that Roma side were the last team to do what Napoli have done, namely win their opening eight games of the season. Roma actually extended the streak to 10 games, establishing two records: on the one hand, it was the best start to a season ever by a Serie A club, but on the other, they became the first club to come out of the blocks with eight straight wins and fail to win the title.
It's one of the reasons Juventus aren't panicking at the moment. The Old Lady was in exactly the same position she is now, five points off the top, in Antonio Conte's final season and still won the title. She was in a worse spot two years ago (12 points back at the end of October) and overtook a less mature, Gonzalo Higuain-led Napoli side. Spalletti can do Juventus a favour with a win at San Paolo on Saturday, but just don't expect him to see it that way. After all, a victory would take Inter top and although they haven't won in the league in Naples in more than 20 years, reasons to believe are not exactly in short supply.
Sarri's first loss at home as Napoli manager took more than a year to arrive, but when it did, it was against Inter in the 2016 Coppa Italia. Spalletti also won here with Roma last season with an innovative "three-and-a-half defence." Still, the odds are stacked against Inter. Napoli are undefeated in 20 games in Serie A stretching back to last season and have racked up 90 points in their past 35 in the league: it's the consistency of champions.
But this is Inter's best start in 15 years; it's the best of Spalletti's career, too. They're still unbeaten and the manner in which they're winning games both shows and nourishes belief at the same time. Inter are the kings of late goals this season. Nine of their 17 goals, including Mauro Icardi's stoppage-time winner in Sunday's Milan derby, have come in the final 15 minutes, which equates to seven of their 22 points. This team might not always play well, but it never gives up and the mentality Spalletti has sought to instill looks to already be ingrained. Without European football to occupy them in midweek, Inter have a luxury Napoli don't have: time to rest, recover and prepare best for Saturday's big game.
The mood in the camp is understandably upbeat -- dare I say euphoric -- after the 3-2 win in the Madonnina. If anything Spalletti now needs to keep the team grounded and not let the start of the season go to their heads. As a work in progress, Inter can still improve a lot, particularly in areas where Napoli excel. Spalletti has spoken about his desire to see the team play with greater speed and skill. More creativity is in order and auditions for the No. 10 role haven't seen anyone make the part truly their own, perhaps with the exception of Marcelo Brozovic, who suffered an injury while on international duty.
Of course failing to make as many chances as you would like isn't such a big problem when you have a striker with Icardi's predatory instincts. A big-game player, Icardi scored an ice-cold 87th-minute penalty to get Inter a point at the San Paolo two years ago. This year he delivered away to Roma and against Milan with an inspired hat trick. Napoli famously tried to sign him as Higuain's replacement in 2016, even offering Icardi's wife, Wanda, a role in one of owner Aurelio de Laurentiis' films. He turned them down. Napoli ended up signing Arkadiusz Milik from Ajax instead and when he got injured, the reinvented Dries Mertens turned into one of the deadliest strikers around.
Mertens was disappointing on Tuesday night and will no doubt be looking for a measure of redemption this weekend. He'll likely be without his wingman Lorenzo Insigne, who hobbled off in Manchester, which serves to complicate matters further against Inter. It's a tricky period for the Partenopei. Playing Roma and Inter either side of their Champions League encounters with City was always going to represent a major test of their title credentials, but it will tell us a lot about Inter's too.
Both teams have impressed by winning all their big games in the league this season but on Saturday, though, something has got to give. The title race in Italy could be poised for yet another twist and turn in what is proving a compelling campaign.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.