Napoli fought back to earn their place in the Coppa Italia final on Saturday evening, holding title challengers Inter to a 1-1 draw, and sneaking through by two goals to one on aggregate.
Inter took the lead in bizarre fashion inside two minutes, when Christian Eriksen’s in-swinging corner evaded everyone – including goalkeeper David Opsina – to creep over the line and draw I Nerazzurri level on aggregate.
The visitors had the better of the first half, and Ospina was forced to redeem himself with some smart saves to deny Romelu Lukaku and Antonio Candreva during a dominant Inter display. But Napoli made their opponents pay for their wayward finishing when Dries Mertens rounded off a crisp counter attack to draw I Partenopei level on the night, restoring their lead over the two legs.
Both sides threatened in the second half, with Lorenzo Insigne and Alexis Sanchez both going close, but missing the far post with their strikes. Inter pushed to find the goal they required to reach the final, but Napoli stood firm to book their date with Juventus in Wednesday’s big final.
Key Talking Point
Who would be a goalkeeper, eh? It takes a strong and brave man to stand between those sticks every week, aware that any mistake will go punished. And sure enough, only two minutes into football’s return to Naples, Ospina must have been wishing that the break had lasted another weekend. Although the Colombian was clearly unsighted, he should have done better with Inter’s opening goal, allowing the corner to snake beyond him in comical circumstances. Not funny if you’re a Napoli fan, though.
But Ospina made up for his error – and then some – over the next 90 minutes, making two great first-half saves, before releasing a pinpoint long clearance to set up the hosts’ equaliser. And the goalkeeper continued his heroics in the second half, pulling off a sensational stop down to his left to deny Eriksen his second of the evening. Unfortunately, he picked up a late booking, meaning he’ll miss the final.
From laughing stock to hero, just another day in the life of a goalkeeper.
Starting XI: Ospina (8), Di Lorenzo (6), Maksimovic (8), Koulibaly (8), Hysaj (6), Elmas (6), Demme (7), Zielinski (7), Politano (6), Mertens (9*), Insigne (7).
Substitutes: Callejon (7), Fabian (6), Milik (6), Allan (7), Younes (N/A).
The record breaker. Napoli rarely threatened in the first half, but all of their good play flowed through the feet of Mertens. The Belgian forward carved out some half-chances for himself, since he was seriously lacking any service, and it wasn’t long before his efforts were repaid. The 33-year-old was on hand to round off a lethal counter attack at the end of the first half, and in doing so, he wrote himself into Napoli history.
Mertens became the club’s all-time leading goalscorer with that strike against Inter, surpassing Marek Hamsik with his 122nd strike for I Partenopei. The forward faded as fatigue began to set in, and he was sacrificed as Gennaro Gattuso opted to hold onto their narrow lead. But a fairytale contribution from the Napoli star.
Key Talking Point
Ladies and gentlemen, Eriksen has arrived in Italian football. The Danish playmaker had initially struggled to bed himself into Conte’s side following his January arrival, but it’s safe to say, he’s well and truly got his feet under the table now. We were all wondering how Eriksen would fit into this Inter side, but he seems to have found his ideal role, playing behind the two strikers.
It was his opportunistic corner which broke the deadlock, catching Ospina off guard with a wicked curler which found its way into the net. From that early stroke of fortune, the Inter star never looked back. Eriksen fed off the knockdowns of Martinez and Lukaku, before releasing incisive passes behind the Napoli defence to Inter’s wide men, or returning the favour back to the front two.
Eriksen tired as the game went on, and he struggled to maintain his impressive levels, although he did have the chance to win the game late on, but his effort was saved superbly. But finally, it appears that the real Eriksen may have stood up for Inter’s upcoming title race.
Starting XI: Handanovic (6); Skriniar (7), De Vrij (7), Bastoni (7); Candreva (8), Brozovic (9), Barella (8), Young (6); Eriksen (7); Lukaku (8), Lautaro (7).
Substitutes: Sanchez (7), Moses (7), Biraghi (6), Ranocchia (N/A), Sensi (N/A).
The unsung hero of this Inter midfield. While Eriksen and the dynamic duo up front grab all the headlines, Marcelo Brozovic just keeps everything ticking over in the centre of the pitch. The Croatian star is a wonderful box-to-box player, and he dominated the game once again for I Nerazzurri.
Brozovic was imperious in the first half, halting all of Napoli’s progress, and popping the ball off to his teammates to forage forward in search of goals. The 27-year-old often darted into the final third himself, arriving late to add an extra body to the visitors’ attacks, although his finishing was far from clinical this time round. As the game wore on, Inter controlled possession, desperate for the vital goal, and the midfielder kept his cool, picking the right pass time after time to supply his teammates.
A wonderful, wonderful footballer.
Saturday’s draw means that Napoli will face Juve in the Coppa Italia final on Wednesday evening, before they travel to Verona for the season’s restart.
It was semi-final heartbreak for Inter, and Conte will have to lift his players’ spirits ahead of their return to league duty against Sampdoria.