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Osimhen: Has Napoli frontman silenced critics in time for Barcelona return?

12:09 AM MYT 23/02/2022
Victor Osimhen
The Napoli frontman spared his side’s blushes in the title race on Monday on the back of stern criticism

How was that for a response? Victor Osimhen rose highest to prevent a Napoli loss at Cagliari, rising above the Sardinians’ defence to eke out a 1-1 draw in the 87th minute with a bullet header.

While it would be easy to criticise the Azzurri for not capitalising on a rare weekend in Serie A where AC Milan and Inter, the sides they are in contention with for the Scudetto, both dropped points against Salernitana and Sassuolo respectively, Monday night’s performance and result could be excused.

Luciano Spalletti had to rejig his side with the attacking trio of captain Lorenzo Insigne, Hirving Lozano and Matteo Politano missing through injury, while Andre Zambo Anguissa and Stanislav Lobotka constituted midfield absences.

Not having Osimhen for 67 minutes left the Napoli attack severely weakened with Andrea Petagna not offering the mobility or menace of the young centre-forward.

Inattentive observers may have put the Nigerian’s omission on Monday down to lacking a killer instinct against Inter which then preceded an underwhelming showing at Barcelona last week, but that could not be further from the truth.

A knee issue meant he was not in his best shape before the Europa League trip to Barca and he was left out of Monday’s XI as a precautionary measure.

Perhaps the issue with his knee blunted Osimhen’s sharpness against Xavi’s men, with the Super Eagle’s timing on the night being frustrating, to say the least.

Osimhen was flagged offside three times before his 80th-minute withdrawal, and there were instances of his teammates opting against releasing the ball knowing he was beyond Barca’s line of defence.

While he was adjudged to be offside more times in that goalless draw with Roma in October (five), Serse Cosmi, the erstwhile Crotone boss felt last Thursday was the Nigerian’s worst game for the Partenopei.

"Against Barcelona, Osimhen ought to have been among the best in the field and instead I don't know how many times he went offside," Cosmi said as quoted by Calciomercato. “The boy has to improve a lot, a lot because when he plays against a team that has a very high line you have to be careful.

“Unfortunately with a high line [Osimhen] kept going offside. It was not his best match, in fact in my opinion it was the worst.”

Cosmi’s claim followed the mixed reaction to the Nigerian’s performance in the 1-1 draw with Simone Inzaghi’s team the weekend before.

Despite winning the penalty through which Napoli went in front, there was a feeling he could have done better in some promising situations, a sentiment shared by Corriere dello Sport and Corriere della Sera, two major Italian newspapers.

Having said that, it does feel all the noise in the last week was external, even if the frontman’s relationship with Spalletti has made for interesting viewing and reading all season.

The Napoli boss somewhat reprimanded his star striker after that Inter stalemate, urging him to ignore that intrinsic instinct to be a one-man wrecking ball and learn to connect with his teammates.

After last week’s draw at Barca, the ex-Inter boss was critical of the frontman’s tendency to drift offside, even pointing to his temple on one occasion in admonishment after another ill-timed run from the Nigerian.

The tough-love stance with Osimhen meant praise was around the corner, and Spalletti’s words before and after that Cagliari draw on Monday demonstrated the manager’s recognition of the ex-Lille striker’s talent.

“Osimhen’s talent is stratospheric and I cannot comprehend the levels he could potentially reach,” Spalletti told Radio Kiss Kiss before Monday’s draw.

“Victor is the one who needs to understand first and foremost what he could become because he can achieve so much. His teammates must also be ready to prove themselves because playing with a talent like this means you are forced to raise your game if you want to survive.”

After the match, the manager extolled the frontman for salvaging a draw despite not being 100 percent ready to play.

It remains to be seen if he starts Thursday’s return fixture with Barca, but Osimhen will relish the chance of having another go at the Blaugrana backline despite faltering last week.

His mentality proves he is no quitter. His tenacity and doggedness mean he will back himself to right the perceived wrongs from successive big games against Inter and the Spanish giants.

Spalletti’s tough love position is unlikely to change, and you suspect Osimhen does not want it to as it seemingly fuels him to keep proving a point to critics.