April 9, 2018 / 9:52 AM / 5 months ago

Napoli re-ignite title campaign with help of fringe players

MILAN (Reuters) - Just as they seemed to have lost their spark, Napoli have re-ignited their Serie A challenge with the help of two fringe players.

Soccer Football - Serie A - Napoli vs Chievo Verona - Stadio San Paolo, Naples, Italy - April 8, 2018 Napoli's Arkadiusz Milik scores their first goal. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

Trailing 1-0 at home to Chievo with one minute to play on Sunday, Napoli turned the game around thanks to last-gasp goals from injury-plagued forward Arkadiusz Milik and second-choice midfielder Amadou Diawara.

It was exactly the sort of boost Napoli needed as they try to keep up with league leaders Juventus, a task which appeared to be taking its toll on coach Maurizio Sarri and his players.

Defeat would have left them seven points behind but instead they have kept the gap down to four, leaving Serie A as the only one of Europe’s big five leagues to offer a genuine title contest.

Juventus have won 14 and drawn one of their last 15 matches and several of those must have proved demoralising viewing for Napoli as the Turin side snatched wins in games where they had been struggling.

Sarri also believes that Juve have gained a psychological advantage by playing first on most weekends, leaving Napoli to play catch-up.

Worn down by relentless Juve, Napoli’s usually free-flowing football had begun to look jaded as they scored only two goals in their previous three games.

It was the same on Sunday as lowly Chievo packed their penalty area and defied Napoli to find a way past.

Napoli huffed and puffed, missed a penalty early in the second half and then gifted the visitors the lead when they lost possession trying to play the ball out of defence.

But Sunday’s finish, while nerve-wracking, could prove far more of a boost than if they had ground out a 1-0 win.

STRONG MESSAGE

“To win this game in this manner is a message to ourselves, rather than a message for Juventus,” said Sarri. “We always want to win and, if we hadn’t done so today, it would have been an injustice.

“We are going through a stage where we are making too many wrong choices in the final 20 metres but that’s always going to happen at some point in a long championship.”

The lack of strength in depth has often been a worry for Napoli, with Sarri fielding almost the same lineup — seven players have played in at least 30 of their 31 Serie A games — and a 4-3-3 formation in every match.

But Sunday’s win was down to two players who have barely got a look-in this season.

Diawara, still only 20, has found it difficult to break into a midfield where Allan, Jorginho and captain Marek Hamsik are the obvious first choices.

Poland forward Milik, meanwhile, has suffered two knee ligament injuries since joining from Ajax at the start of last season.

The 24-year-old, signed to replace Gonzalo Higuain, scored seven goals in his first nine appearances before injury struck and Sarri said he had been badly missed.

“I’m very happy with Milik’s goal, it shows just how disastrous for us his double injury has been,” he said.

Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern; Editing by Christian Radnedge

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