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African All Stars

Osimhen, Napoli must prove strength of character against Roma

08:27 SAST 2022/04/18
Victor Osimhen Napoli 2021-22
The in-form Nigerian and his colleagues must prevent history from repeating itself for the Partenopei

When Victor Osimhen halved the deficit with six minutes of normal time remaining against Fiorentina, the Diego Armando Maradona crowd refound their voice, knowing a point could still be salvaged after what was looking set to be a 3-1 home defeat.

While Napoli could not eke out what would have been tagged a point gained rather than two lost owing to the flow of the game, the headlines were already writing themselves.

Immediately Maurizio Mariani’s final whistle went, the cameras focused on a glum Kalidou Koulibaly standing in disbelief at what he had just witnessed, as the departing Lorenzo Insigne walked by.

These two, more than most, perhaps knew what was coming.

Having experienced the cataclysm of the 2017/18 title race in which Koulibaly was somewhat culpable in the final weeks of Maurizio Sarri’s final season in Naples and last season’s final day failure to return to the Champions League following a 1-1 draw with Hellas Verona, Napoli were about to be accused of lacking bottle yet again.

With Serie A not possessing any side as strong as Massimiliano Allegri’s 17/18 Juventus any longer, this season represents the Azzurri’s best chance of claiming a first Scudetto in a generation. Despite the recent setback, Koulibaly is not prepared to throw in the towel.

“We wanted to win at all costs,” the centre-back told DAZN after last week’s 3-2 defeat by Fiorentina.“Now we need to prepare for the game with Roma and I still believe we can it [win the title]. We won’t look at the others, but we’ll only focus on ourselves.”

Napoli’s blushes were spared by AC Milan’s goalless encounter with Torino, a stalemate that meant Stefano Pioli’s team could only extend their lead over Luciano Spalletti’s men by a point, opening a two-point advantage over the 1990 champions. They have since extended that lead to five points, with Friday’s 2-0 success over Genoa heaping further pressure on Napoli who host Roma on Monday.

Depending on where you stand, there is hardly ever indifference when discussing the Partenopei. You either reckon they are the real deal or, whisper it, serial bottlers who lack the know-how to go over the line at crucial points.

That supposed mental block and both Milan clubs are what Napoli are up against if they are to end a 32-year wait for a top-flight title.

In Osimhen, supporters at the Maradona have arguably the league’s most in-form marksman, with the Nigerian scoring five times and assisting one in his last three Serie A games.

This has put him on 12 league goals heading into Monday’s meeting with Jose Mourinho’s Roma where his next goal will see him match that 13-goal campaign from the 2019/20 season in Ligue 1.

The strong-willed frontman has already surpassed last season’s return of 10 domestic goals, further impressive when considering the 23-year-old has achieved this year’s tally in three fewer appearances.

There remain doubts over Osimhen’s decisive quality in the so-called big games, and the visit of the in-form capital club will test the Super Eagle who is yet to score in six meetings against teams possessing the technical quality to match Spalletti’s men.

A strong showing by the Nigeria superstar will be timely, not least because of the ambition to close the five-point gap on Milan by three points and move level with Inter Milan on 69 points, but also to turn the tide of results this year on home turf.

That loss at the hands of Fiorentina was Napoli’s fifth defeat in Naples this season, the seventh-best home record in the division. Contrast this with how they fare on their travels and the realisation that Spalletti’s men outrank every side on away results beggars belief.

“Yes, these home games where we could have jumped on top of the league table and instead we struggled, that’s the thing that gave me the most to think about,” the Napoli boss admitted to the media before facing his old side on Easter Monday.

Two wins from five in front of their supporters will worry the tactician just as much as it should concern the players.

Failure to beat both Milan clubs — interestingly the two other Serie A teams with impressive away records this term — could be overlooked despite the obvious disappointment of not beating a title rival, yet the displeasure at losing to a Fiorentina side that had won only twice in the away league games since October (six defeats) probably hurts double.

With five games remaining after this week’s round of fixtures (six for Inter who have a game outstanding), victory over a Roma side with 11 points from their last five away encounters is imperative to keep pace with the leading teams in the division.

Napoli need a change at the Maradona to sustain this title challenge. In Osimhen — who has contributed to four goals altogether in successive home games having previously scored only twice in Naples all season — Spalletti’s top match-winner is finally delivering in front of their supporters.

If the Nigerian delivers on Monday, not only will the home support’s belief in the young forward grow but it would suggest this Napoli iteration can cope under the weight of expectation of a Scudetto challenge.