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Internazionale vs Napoli

Inter Milan vs Napoli: Osimhen’s New Year availability bodes well for Serie A’s leading marksman

21:37 GMT+3 03/01/2023
Victor Osimhen Napoli 2022-23
The Nigerian enters 2023 in fine fettle, a major difference from the two preceding campaigns in which injuries hindered him at the turn of the year

Serie A is the fourth of Europe’s top five leagues to resume after the World Cup hiatus, so you would forgive anyone for wanting a refresher course.

The Italian top flight’s last round of games in early November ended with Napoli claiming a 3-2 win over Udinese that maintained their eight-point lead atop the standings. Victor Osimhen rose above the away side’s defence to head home his ninth league goal of 2022-23, leaving him as the division’s stand-alone leading scorer after 15 gameweeks.

While that return ostensibly appears modest, the Nigerian’s appearance count of 11 (10 starts) adds the layer of context a cursory observer may have missed. Indeed, the Super Eagle marksman has a chance of claiming this season’s Capocannoniere in Serie A in only his third season at Napoli.

Ciro Immobile, the top scorer in three of the last five seasons, suffered muscle injuries before November’s interlude, thus limiting his game time in the final six games before the break. Fabio Quagliarella (26) and Cristiano Ronaldo (29), who netted a combined 55 times in the seasons they claimed the award in 2018-19 and 2020-21, respectively, are correspondingly second-fiddle at Sampdoria and no longer at Juventus.

Dusan Vlahovic has suffered amid Juventus’ broader creativity issues, and Romelu Lukaku’s return to Inter Milan has been beset with injuries.

The latter, whom Osimhen faces in the league’s return on Wednesday, recognises the Nigeria international’s outstanding ability.

“[Luciano] Spalletti has done a great job, we have to say,” Lukaku told Sky Sports. “Osimhen scores many goals and is really strong. Now he's the best striker. We have to be honest. He's strong, and he's doing really well for Napoli.

“They are first in the standings. We have respect, but not fear.”

2022 was a significant year for Osimhen despite the challenges in adapting to Spalletti’s needs from a central striker and continued problems with injuries.

The Tuscan-born trainer could extol the centre-forward’s stratospheric talent one week and censure his intermittent inclination to be a one-man band the week later. That ambivalence has pushed the young striker to the top of the scoring charts this season, despite missing four rounds of games through injury.

Giacomo Raspadori thrived in his absence, fulfilling the manager's needs by combining better with teammates in the final third. Undaunted, Osimhen’s roaring return to action demonstrated he had not listened to the outside noise and was Napoli’s man for all seasons, even if the Italy international stole the spotlight for several weeks.

The 24-year-old has contributed to a goal in all but one game since returning to action in mid-October, scoring his first Serie A hat-trick in the 4-0 thrashing of Sassuolo at the end of that month.

There may have been no goal involvement in the 2-0 win over Empoli, but the Nigerian won the penalty from which the Partenopei opened the scoring.

That said, the most impressive feature of Osimhen’s campaign has been the decisive execution to back up the final-third menace he has always carried, an added component of the striker’s game to worry Inter’s backline.

The Napoli marksman netted a brilliant winner against Jose Mourinho’s Roma and scored and set up another at Atalanta despite giving away an early penalty at the Gewiss Stadium. Spalletti’s crew won 2-1.

Having mostly huffed and puffed without the requisite execution in preceding years at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, the former Lille striker is deciding tight games against the so-called top teams to aid the Naples outfit’s Scudetto challenge.

Despite Osimhen’s strengths, the Azzurri faithful must hope the Nigerian stays fit for the rest of the campaign.

Interestingly, this year represents the first time the Super Eagle has ever been available for the two-time Serie A winners at the turn of the year.

He missed a chunk of his debut campaign owing to a shoulder injury suffered on international duty in November 2020 that extended to the start of 2021, where a positive Coronavirus test kept him out of league action until January 24.

Last season, a cheekbone fracture in the corresponding fixture with Simone Inzaghi’s troops kept him out of domestic action until January 17, when he returned away at Bologna. He did not start a game for the Partenopei until February 6’s 2-0 triumph at Venezia.

Having Osimhen to call upon at the start of 2023 is a benefit, especially in a month that would see Napoli face Juventus and Roma after playing Inter this week.

Spalletti’s team head into round 16 unbeaten in Serie A, winning on both visits to Stadio Olimpico and claiming maximum points on their last trip to San Siro in September, defeating AC Milan 2-1, to prove their big-game capabilities.

They would need to pick up where they left off before the intermission to put paid to the Nerazzurri’s unbeaten run in their annual opener that has stood since 2014. That streak has seen Inter claim maximum points in their last three year-opening fixture.

Former Inter president Massimiliano Moratti did not stop short of naming Napoli’s biggest threats before this week’s showdown.

“Kvaratskhelia and striker Osimhen, no doubt! They are the two players who can decide the match against Inter,” said the ex-Nerazzurri supremo.

Napoli are not yet halfway to claiming their first Scudetto since 1990 but an eight-point lead to start 2023 is a healthy advantage, nonetheless.

Another top performance and result on Wednesday would strengthen the belief that this could be their year after three decades of discouraging anticipation.