Sassuolo are in a groove for the first time in the season and will be the latest to try stopping the freight train that is Napoli, hoping the upcoming Champions League match will take away some focus.
Serie A Week 23 – Friday 16 February 2023 – Gewiss Stadium | Preview by Enrico Passarella
Sassuolo have had a weird, if not flat-out terrible, campaign so far, but they have shown signs of their old glory in recent fixtures, especially in the large win over Milan. They followed it up by nipping Atalanta with the help of an early red card. Drawing with Monza and Udinese is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering they had lost six of seven matches before the recent stretch.
Domenico Berardi coming back from injury puts everything in the right place, and he dominated the San Siro tilt. However, he’s iffy with an ailment, and it remains to be seen whether their confidence will seem shot again if will be unavailable. Even when he doesn’t score or assist, he’s clearly their true leader and reference point, and the offense works much more smoothly when he’s directing it.
They might be better equipped to replace him following the January window. They cashed in on Hamed Traoré for a robust fee, and he was arguably their player with the most upside, and they signed Nedim Bajrami from Empoli. He’s not technically a right winger, but he was deployed there when the star subbed off last week. He is a high-usage player and creative hub. He had run his course at Empoli, probably losing motivation because he didn’t transfer last summer, but he’s a quality and slippery playmaker on his day.
Ideally, it should be Armand Laurienté to lead the team in these circumstances, and he has occasionally done it, but he’s a little inconsistent, considering his talent and the fact that he can potentially decide a game in any given play. Probably that’s why he’s still in second-tier teams despite being 24 because he surely has the stuff for more prestigious stages.
There have been bizarre situations that have noticeably hurt their XI, perhaps because something happened behind the scenes with the coach or the management. Ruan Tressoldi has been starting over Gianmarco Ferrari and, while the former has been improving and stopped making blunders, it was baffling why the switch happened in the first place. Pedro Obiang supplanted Maxime Lopez, which would have been unthinkable a few months ago. The veteran makes sense for a gritty side that fights to avoid relegation, but the former is a much more brilliant passer and one of the most underrated midfielders around. Perhaps he thought he would join a big team, and his mentality and determination were affected by it. From the outside, they look like unnecessary self-inflicted wounds. The gaffer also drove an above-average fullback like Georgios Kyriakopoulos out of town by constantly picking a more ordinary like Rogerio over him.
The pre-season tweak from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 occurred because they lost Traoré to an early injury and to fully activate Davide Frattesi, who’s a full-fledged. He has responded as expected since he has been their most consistent player. He routinely takes defenses by surprise with his sneaky cuts, and he’s an energy bunny in the passive phase too. Matheus Henrique inherited the final spot in the midfield after the departure of Traoré and has proven to be an excellent complementary piece, especially for his technique. He too had been cast aside for months. Kristjan Thorstvedt could eventually resurface too, and he has ideal traits for the scheme, but he hasn’t panned so far, even though they surely tried to make it happen.
This season further proves there’s a Sassuolo with Berardi and one without him. It’s not just a matter of sheer quality, but also personality. They are much more brazen when he’s on the pitch. If he’s out or can play just a few minutes, the question will be whether the recent string of good results rebuilt their confidence enough for it not to be a massive problem, allowing them to keep up the high level they have reached, or if they will falter again.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Consigli; Zortea, Erlic, Ruan, Rogerio; Frattesi, Obiang, Henrique; Bajrami, Defrel, Laurienté.
Napoli keep churning along: they have been extraordinary, plus their competitors are very flawed. After all, power wears down those who don’t have it, and the other supposed contenders are visibly starting to get frustrated and lose hope and ambition considering their near-perfect pace. It’s inevitable, as the Partenopei have shown no indications of slowing down. They have to exploit their lead and try to go as far as possible in the Champions League.
They might resist rotating heavily at first, as winning the Scudetto is more meaningful for them than for other clubs, but they should definitely do it in some doses, even at the cost of dropping points here and there. Their backups are adequate, and they might not take a big hit if they rest the starters. The gap with the rivals is so wide that they can already count down the victories they need to clinch the title: 12 in 16 matches to be arithmetically certain, most definitely fewer since Inter won’t prevail in all their remaining ones.
They have been extremely on point in recent games, avoiding any kind of complacency. They have done the exact opposite of playing with their food even when they were clearly superior. Rather than smacking Spezia and Cremonese in the face, they took a half to figure them out before going full-send and taking home two three-nil victories. Plus, the gutsy one against Roma, arguably the side that gave them the most trouble besides the Nerazzurri, where they went after it until late even though they could have settled for a tie further demonstrated their hunger and determination.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia had a little lull in early January, mostly caused by the lingering effects of his previous back problem and a bout with the flu, but he has shown top-notch form in the most recent tilts, where he’s been in God mode. He has dished dazzling plays anyway, but it feels like he’s even performing with restraint, without showing off his full repertoire, either to be as efficient as possible or because Luciano Spalletti told him to be pragmatic. It’d be fun to see what he would do if fully unshackled, and that perhaps will be the case down the line. It’s panic time whenever he gets the ball on the left-hand side of the pitch with a little bit of room. Defenders don’t know what to aspect since he doesn’t really have a go-to move but likes to mix it up, even though a curled shot in the top corner is always there waiting to be unleashed.
Victor Osimhen carried the team on his shoulders with his goals while the teammate was out or not 100 percent, and he continues to be tremendously prolific but, once the Georgian was back to full health, it quickly became clear who’s truly running the show. It’s not a knock but simply a matter of traits. It’s highly beneficial for the Nigerian marksman too, since he can focus on battling for positioning with defenders in the box, and he comes out on top most of the times with his supreme physicality and nose for the goal.
Giacomo Raspadori being out with an injury reduces their options, but backups Giovanni Simeone, Mathias Olivera, Juan Jesus, Tanguy Ndombélé, and especially Elijf Elmas have proven to be adept. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of approach Spalletti goes for, and it might ultimately not be a factor since there are five days to go before the next match. An all-out rotation is improbable, but he can either field two or three reserves, or decide to face the opponents head-on, trying to seal the deal in about an hour, and then take some starters off. They haven’t done that in the last two games, though, and their adversaries were weaker than Sassuolo.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Meret; Di Lorenzo, Rrahmani, Kim, Olivera; Anguissa, Lobotka, Elmas; Lozano, Osimhen, Kvaratshkelia.
Sassuolo: Muldur (ankle fracture), Toljan (thigh strain).
Napoli: Raspadori (thigh strain).