NAPLES – The word ‘trajectory’ can refer to the way a ball moves, but it can also define a team’s form. Inter have been on a very positive trajectory as of late, with the Nerazzurri having come into today’s clash against Napoli on the back of eleven consecutive wins. This evening’s fixture was always going to be a particularly tough one, and so it proved to be. Napoli looked to put the pressure on during the first half of the opening period. Then, Conte’s side showed why they’re currently enjoying such an excellent run. The Nerazzurri were solid and also unfortunate: they conceded an own goal and hit the woodwork on two occasions during the first 45 minutes at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Then, after the restart, they played as a team, levelling matters through Eriksen’s fantastic left-footed strike. And while Napoli hit the bar themselves in the closing stages, Handanovic was rarely called into action. Hakimi could have won it at the last, but he was denied by a huge last-ditch challenge. It thus finished 1-1. While Inter’s winning run has come to an end, Conte’s men still have a nine-point advantage at the top. There are seven steps that still need to be climbed.
Picking up eleven consecutive wins brings with it the desire to continue on a victorious path. But when such victories have been achieved by playing with in such a precise and well-defined fashion, it’s inevitable that opponents will deploy certain countermeasures. Inter took to the field in their usual 3-5-2 formation, with Darmian selected on the left flank. Gattuso stuck with a 4-2-3-1 but asked his side to press and read play in a highly codified and organised way. Napoli weren’t afraid to push up the pitch, with Demme, for example, aiming to stifle Eriksen and Ruiz carefully shadowing Brozovic. In the opening stages, then, clear-cut chances were at a premium: Inter were happy to sit deep and Napoli didn’t look particularly dangerous despite controlling possession.
Inter only broke away on a few occasions early on, with this success coming when they were able to take Koulibaly out of the game and gain ground. Lukaku looked dangerous with his running, while Darmian was lively down the left. In the 29th minute, Lukaku hit the bar after getting his right foot to Brozovic’s shot.
But just when the Nerazzurri were enjoying their best spell of the game, Napoli struck. It was a rather scruffy goal, with Handanovic moving towards the ball to collect Insigne’s low cross, colliding with de Vrij and unluckily diverting the ball into the net. Inter absorbed the blow and immediately hit the woodwork for a second time: Eriksen’s set-piece bounced off Lukaku and came off the post. Having fallen behind for the first time in three months, it was clear that the Nerazzurri wanted to correct things quickly. In the final move of the first half, Lautaro picked out Barella with a lovely ball, but Meret came rushing out to deny the Italian.
Inter’s attitude in the second half was one of absolute desire to score. And thus they pushed up the pitch and tried to pin Napoli back. It wasn’t a siege, not quite. Because Meret wasn’t forced to make lots of saves, but Napoli suffered from Inter’s iron will and retreated.
In the build-up play for the equaliser, Inter worked as a team, as always, and made use of the entire width of the pitch. Hakimi burst down the right and played in a cross. It arrived at the feet of Darmian, whose ball in ricocheted to the edge of the area, where Eriksen was waiting. The Dane let fly with a thunderous strike that fizzed into the bottom corner. 1-1. The perfect trajectory.
Inter went on the hunt for a second straight away, but the match never did properly open up, despite the faster pace and the many duels which upped its intensity. Napoli constantly looked to get in behind, with Insigne continually manoeuvring, Ruiz providing the inspiration and Politano aiming to make his mark. And the former Nerazzurri man almost did exactly this in the 80th minute, when he dribbled his way through a crowd and struck the bar with a thunderous effort. A bit of luck for the Nerazzurri too.
Conte’s side never gave in. In the last few minutes, they tried to move the ball quickly, with Sanchez once again showing eagerness after coming on. Then, Manolas made a huge last-gasp intervention to deny Hakimi what would have been the winner, with the Moroccan finding himself in a one-on-one situation against Meret.
NAPOLI (4-2-3-1): 1 Meret; 22 Di Lorenzo, 44 Manolas, 26 Koulibaly, 6 Mario Rui; 4 Demme, 8 Fabian Ruiz (5 Bakayoko 91'); 21 Politano (23 Hysaj 91'), 20 Zielinski (7 Elmas 88'), 10 Insigne; 9 Osimhen (14 Mertens 74').
Substitutes: 16 Contini, 46 Idasiak, 3 Zedadka, 19 Maksimovic, 33 Rrhamani, 37 Petagna, 58 Cioffi, 68 Lobotka.
Coach: Gennaro Gattuso.
INTER (3-5-2): 1 Handanovic; 37 Skriniar, 6 de Vrij, 95 Bastoni; 2 Hakimi, 23 Barella, 77 Brozovic, 24 Eriksen (5 Gagliardini 84'), 36 Darmian (14 Perisic 69'); 9 Lukaku, 10 Lautaro (7 Sanchez 75').
Substitutes: 27 Padelli, 97 Radu, 8 Vecino, 12 Sensi, 13 Ranocchia, 15 Young, 33 D'Ambrosio, 99 Pinamonti.
Coach: Antonio Conte.
Goalscorers: 36' Handanovic OG (I), 55' Eriksen (I)
Bookings: Koulibaly (N), Darmian (I), Demme (N), Politano (N), Mertens (N), Hakimi (I), Manolas (N)
Added time: 1' - 4'.
Assistants: Costanzo, Ranghetti.
Fourth Official: Marini.
VAR Assistant: Paganessi.