The Nigerian and his teammates were second-best in their defeat by Atalanta, but they’ll look to come to Gennaro Gattuso’s aid vs the in-form Old Lady
Victor Osimhen was understandably frustrated after his 79th-minute substitution, which had more to do with his own dissatisfying showing than Gennaro Gattuso’s decision to send on Andrea Petagna with 11 minutes to play.
The forward could have levelled things up for Napoli minutes before Matteo Pessina’s second of the night for Atalanta, but instead went off with the Azzurri trailing 3-1, rather than level at 2-2. As a consequence, last season’s Coppa Italia winners will not be successfully defending the title they’d won impressively in 2020, with La Dea eliminating Gattuso’s men 3-1 on aggregate.
Frankly, over the course of the tie, the better team progressed. Atalanta dominated the reverse fixture in Naples and missed a torrent of chances to score in the goalless encounter. On Wednesday night, Gian Piero Gasperini’s team were largely comfortable, even if the possession stat (60-40 in favour of the visitors) presents a contradiction.
Gattuso’s men did show some flashes at the Gewiss Stadium, particularly right after half-time which ultimately resulted in Hirving Lozano’s 53rd-minute strike. Be that as it may, they created little clear-cut chances from open play.
One of those opportunities did fall for Osimhen, but he couldn’t flick the ball beyond Pierluigi Gollini. Interestingly, that was the Nigerian’s only effort on a wearisome night in Bergamo, which highlights the lack of service for the big-money summer signing.
Much of the game was spent closing down off the ball and tussling with the opposition to win 50-50s all night. There was a concerted effort to swarm around the striker when he had possession and the unwillingness of the referee to give free-kicks in his favour visibly rankled.
Napoli’s approach play was disrupted by Atalanta’s pressing, especially in the opening half, thus contributing to several long balls downfield for the West African to chase. He got little joy inside the hosts’ penalty area, as did his colleagues who frequently shot from range.
He huffed and puffed but ultimately wasn’t good enough on the night. It wasn’t for the want of trying, however, a detail Gattuso stated after the game.
“It’s not easy to be at the top after 94 days off,” the Napoli boss said after the defeat. “He’s still missing the sprint, his main skill, but he’s progressing gradually. He can do much more.”
In an attempt to draw positives from events in Bergamo, it wasn’t lost on anyone that it was the Nigeria striker’s first start for the club since returning from injury and recovering from coronavirus.
Osimhen had been eased back in after that Covid-19 enforced layoff, with 36 minutes against Genoa last weekend the longest he’d spent on the pitch until Wednesday.
The Azzurri were beaten 2-1 in that match, with Gattuso ruing preventable mistakes in defence and poor finishing in the final third as they fell to their seventh Serie A loss of 2020/21. Napoli’s number nine was culpable in the latter, somehow blazing over from around six yards out when hitting the target at least was the bare minimum.
The recent woes have ramped up the pressure on the club’s head coach, with several reports in Italy claiming defeats against Atalanta and Juventus will seal the 43-year-old’s fate in the job. They face the in-form Old Lady on Saturday and the AC Milan icon was coy on the subject after the cup exit in midweek.
“I don’t know, you have to ask the club,” the 43-year-old boss stated post-match. “The captain of the ship is me, when things go badly, they are at the expense of the captain. “I can’t think of this as the penultimate or last resort, I have to work and I have to be able to trust.
“I’m a coach, it’s like that. I won’t be the first, nor the last, but I have the duty to try until the end.”
That’s, more or less, the standard line from a manager under pressure but there’s a hint of something brewing in Naples, nonetheless. Gattuso’s comments after their 2-0 win over Parma on January 31 were in criticism of club president Aurelio De Laurentiis over the lack of protection he’d received since results turned in December.
Going by the form book, Juventus’ results have been near perfect since their 3-0 December thrashing by Fiorentina in Turin. Andrea Pirlo’s team have won every game in the league bar that 2-0 loss at Inter Milan, with performances on the whole generally impeccable.
The same can’t be said for Napoli, who have battled with absences to key players, Osimhen inclusive, mistakes at the back and profligate finishing as they’ve gone from Serie A contenders to top four hopefuls.
While the Nigerian has returned from his layoff, the sharpness still seems absent, although 79 minutes at Atalanta in midweek was encouraging.
Osimhen hasn’t thrived in front of goal since moving from Lille last summer; still, Gattuso will hope the stars align on Saturday in a clash many believe might have immediate ramifications for the under-fire Napoli boss.