Napoli traveled to Bergamo to take on Atalanta on Sunday afternoon on match-day 21 of the Serie A season and came away with a 1-0 road victory.
Serie A fans and football fans placed a lot of hype on this matchup, but why? Well, there’s the obvious.
The Partenopei came into the match with a one-point lead over Juventus for first place. On the other hand, Atalanta had been hot coming into the clash. The club had won eight of its last 11 matches in all competitions and only one of those other three games was a loss. La Dea defeated AC Milan and Roma both on the road. One of those draws was a 3-3 decision with a good Lazio side.
Naturally therefore, a win for Napoli today meant that they’d secure first place for at least one more week. Simple right? Not entirely. There is the need to look deeper into the matchup to really understand how tough it was for the visitors to win.
Besides Atalanta’s recent form, there’s history when it comes to the two clubs’ head-to-head record. The Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia has not been kind to Napoli over the years and neither have the Nerazzurri.
Firstly, the two sides are fresh off a meeting with each other in the Coppa Italia competition less than three weeks ago. That Quarterfinal meeting took place at the Stadio San Paolo, but Atalanta came away with a 2-1 win. Just four days later, the side defeated Roma by the same score in league play.
With those two big wins, it was also natural for Atalanta to feel good about itself coming into today. Then there’s the head-to-head record between Napoli and Atalanta.
Since 2007, Napoli has only won twice in Bergamo against the Nerazzurri in 10 meetings. The club also has two draws in that same range of matches. Last season, Atalanta completed the sweep by defeating Napoli both home and away.
Therefore, the match today was even more blatantly important for the Partenopei to win in order to keep their title hopes intact. One point would not be enough with a surging Juventus behind in second place. Napoli faced a must win situation on Sunday.
The first half was a deadlock between the sides. Atalanta cut off threats like Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens. In return, Napoli neutralized the home sides’ threats in the form of Alejandro “Papu” Gomez and Josip Ilicic. The Nerazzurri also did a really good job at suffocating Napoli’s midfield. Jorginho had a tougher time than usual controlling the flow of play. Atalanta forced Napoli to play more on its right side. It seemed once again that Gian Piero Gasperini may have studied Maurizio Sarri’s scheme to perfection.
However, the Azzurri grew into the match in the final minutes of the first half, which lead to a dominant second half performance.
Jose Callejon had the first clear chance of the match when he connected on a Lorenzo Insigne cross. Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha made a fantastic save on the Spaniard’s point-blank header.
However, Atalanta wasn’t able to stop Dries Mertens from scoring and ending a nine-game goal drought. Callejon fed his striker with a great through ball and Mertens stayed onside to gather himself and finish it past Berisha. His goal proved to be enough for a Napoli victory. The score would have been 2-0, but Marek Hamsik’s stoppage time goal was ruled offside.
This victory stands as Napoli’s biggest win and three points of the season thus far. Not only did the Serie A leaders win in a historically hostile environment for them, but they made a significant statement.
The statement being that this Napoli truly has what it takes to win the Scudetto this season. This Napoli can suffer. This Napoli can struggle. This club has “grinta.” This Napoli has finally developed a stronger mentality than its had in prior seasons.
One can ask: why does the victory mean so much now when there’s so many games left in the season? The definitive answer is that the Partenopei have not lost away from home in league competition in their last 24 matches.
Napoli will have to win on the road again later on in order to secure the coveted Serie A title. The title can come down to the Juventus – Napoli matchup in Torino in April. Sarri and the Azzurri can take this win in Bergamo and instill the belief that they can win again on the road against the Old Lady when it’ll matter even more.