Serie A Week 13 – Saturday 5 November 2022 – Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia | Preview by Enrico Passarella
The first and the second team in the standings square off in Round 13, yet it doesn’t feel like a super-duper big game. Atalanta will have the opportunity to prove they are serious contenders, but nobody has stopped Napoli yet.
Atalanta have surely had a strong start, even though they haven’t been as exuberant as in their best stretches of the past ones. But they were so severely outplayed by Lazio in their last game against a top team that will be a proper exam for them, even though they have already raked in plenty of points.
They quickly bounced back after the dispiriting loss to the Biancocelesti, their first of the season, by easily besting Empoli on the road. Their away success continues to be remarkable. Still, they don’t approach the crunch game in stellar shape, as they won’t have Luis Muriel, while Marten De Roon isn’t 100 percent and might not be able to start.
The Dutchman might be one of the most unheralded contributors in the league for all the dirty work he does and the balance he provides in the midfield, even single-handedly at times, so they might take the chance and field him right away, as they don’t have a proper replacement. Gian Piero Gasperini went with Mario Pasalic and Ederson together in the past game, who took turns in playing either next to Teun Koopmeiners or as a no.10. But they lose intangibles and discipline, as they are too offensive-minded to be properly suited for the role.
Giorgio Scalvini has occasionally taken care of it in the past, and, as an adapted center-back, he could ultimately be the choice considering they will face a high-wattage side. Despite his natural position, he’s no stranger to contributing in the final third, and he has enough technique not to flounder in the passing game. But with a maestro next to him, that won’t be a big issue. The youngster has fared just fine in the back, but the recent returns from injury of Rafael Toloi and Berat Djimsiti allow the gaffer to move him if he wants to.
Even though it has rarely been whole, the rearguard, and not the frontline, has been the engine of the team. The credit obviously goes to the entire passive phase, and the raw data are clear, as they have allowed just eight goals, one more than the league-leading Juventus in that respect. But they conceded twice against Lazio, and they will be severely put to test in this one as well.
The absence of Muriel is equally hurtful, not because they don’t have the horses to replace him, but due to the fact that was in a groove. When that happens, he’s a sight to behold. He’s never been the most consistent player, but very few have the same mix of agility, dribbling and passing skills, and shooting ability. And he had established a strong rapport with Ademola Lookman, who’s surprisingly clinical and polished in the box for a pacey winger.
The most straightforward choice would be to go with a pure center-forward, Duvan Zapata, if he can handle an hour coming off a lengthy absence, or Rasmus Hojlund. They are both good, but they lose some magic and unpredictability. Even with a physical guy, it’s tough to match Napoli’s impressive muscularity, so they will have to be creative with how they try to do damage. But the boss dropped a hint about going with a false-nine. Not having a reference point might bamboozle the opposing center-backs a little, and he likes to deploy Ruslan Malinovskyi in this kind of encounter.
The selection on the wings will be telling too. Brandon Soppy is clearly their most talented option and a menace in the final third, but his defensive reads and focus are often questionable. That’s problematic against a side that basically capitalizes on every opportunity they get. Joakim Maehle is meh but more diligent. It’ll be interesting to see how the rotation will shake out in January when Davide Zappacosta will supposedly be fit.
Unlike previous campaigns, La Dea doesn’t always try to overwhelm the adversaries with incessant waves of offense, but they take their time and work on the flanks to find the right creases without exposing themselves too much. But leaving the initiative to the enemies in an excessive manner might not work out against elite sides, as they have already experienced it first-hand. Perhaps they will be a little bolder in this one, but there’s no real recipe to contain the Azzurri that are in helluva form.
Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Musso; Toloi, Demiral, Djimsiti; Hateboer, De Roon, Koopmeiners, Maehle; Malinovskyi, Pasalic; Lookman.
It turns out that it takes playing at Anfield with little motivation to beat them these days. The winning streak couldn’t last forever, and the loss couldn’t have come at a better time since it was literally meaningless. But they measured up in that contest too, and they more than proved their worth on the international scale in the previous Champions League clashes.
The real question is whether somebody can do it domestically, and the answer might be negative at this stage. They passed their first major test a couple of months ago by topping Milan away, their most credible rivals, and they defeated Roma and Lazio already. They are clearly no match for the minnows, as they blew out even fiery ones like Torino and Sassuolo.
This will be the toughest bout before the World Cup break. They have good chances to run the slate and go into the stoppage with a nice lead. Besides their obvious quality, one of their most impressive traits is that they have succeeded in multiple ways without being monotone. They don’t necessarily go at full speed all the time, trying to submit the opponents by attacking en masse. They are also capable of waiting for matches to come to them, and exploiting their chances, even when they are numbered.
Such ability to read games inevitably comes from Luciano Spalletti, who has been tremendous in every aspect. The management gave him a roster with a lot of talent, even if some of their new stars come from unusual places, and he has handled it perfectly. The wins are sweeping under the rug any minor issue.
Roma tried to muck it up, devising arguably the most defensive game plan they have faced so far. They didn’t try to unhinge it brutally, but they were patient and eventually found a sliver of room, and Victor Osimhen pounced. Instead, Sassuolo faced them head-on, and they feasted on open spaces.
Their versatility is remarkable, and they shouldn’t be so advanced since the squad has been together for a very short amount of time. They had brilliantly survived the absence of their top striker, and he came back with a vengeance, proving that he’s their biggest menace even though Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone had fared more than admirably in relief. The pressure he puts on the adversaries is at another level.
They had even addressed their main shortcoming before it turned into a real issue, as they had kept three consecutive clean sheets before meeting Liverpool. Their defense won’t be in tip-top shape until Amir Rrahmani returns, but Juan Jesus and Leo Ostigard are okay, and trying to attack Kim Min-Jae is a losing proposition. Mathias Olivera has been a dependable defensive option at left-back, while Mario Rui is on fire as an assist man on the other end. The goalkeeper is arguably their weakest position, as Alex Meret has the occasional splendid showing, but he always seems on the brink of unraveling. They will be fine as long as he doesn’t have multiple gaffes in the same game, as overcoming one goal is no issue whatsoever.
Kvicha Kvaratskhelia has been ruled out late with back pain, and substituting him will be quite the challenge. He has sat out just one game so far, a rather meaningless one versus Rangers Glasgow, where they went with Giacomo Raspadori out wide, as he has done at times with Italy and Sassuolo. The alternative is Hirving Lozano switching flank, with both him and Matteo Politano starting. In terms of playmaking, nobody is at the same level as the Georgian star in Serie A besides Rafael Leao and maybe peak Federico Chiesa. The ex-Sassuolo youngster is the most creative among their attackers. The void can’t be compensated by one guy, and they will have to change the geometry of the attack to make it work.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Meret; Di Lorenzo, Kim, Jesus, Rui; Anguissa, Lobotka, Zielinski; Lozano, Osimhen, Raspadori.
Atalanta: Zappacosta, Muriel (thigh strains).
Napoli: Rrahmani (thigh strain), Kvaratshkelia (back pain).