By the end, it felt like a cup final: two teams playing as if everything needed to be settled right here. One moment Roma’s keeper, Rui Patricio, was making a save at his near post and the next he was sprinting toward the opposite goal, joining the attack for a corner. As teammate Gianluca Mancini’s final attempt was blocked, Napoli players spilled from the dugout punching the air, yelling, embracing.
Why should it matter like this? José Mourinho had told us on Saturday that the Serie A title race was already over, offering his congratulations. “I don’t want to be misinterpreted … [but] Napoli have won it, it’s theirs and they deserve it,” he said. “They are the strongest team.”
The Roma manager is famous for his mind-games, but this felt a realistic assessment. It was not just that Napoli are brilliant, but that they have no rivals, every challenge melting away before the spring thaw even begins. Second-place Milan were already 12 points behind and would lose 5-2 at home to Sassuolo in Sunday’s lunchtime kickoff.
What has become of Italy’s reigning champions? That result came on the heels of a 4-0 mauling by Lazio, the first time Milan have conceded four goals in consecutive Serie A games. Before that, was the 3-0 defeat to Inter in the SuperCoppa. They are winless in six matches in all competitions.
Sassuolo have been a bogey team for them ever since achieving promotion to the top-flight a decade ago. This was the fifth time since then they have scored at least three goals against Milan and it was their 4-3 win in the reverse fixture that provoked Silvio Berlusconi to fire Massimiliano Allegri in 2014.
They hardly arrived in compelling form, without a win of their own since October, but scored more times on Sunday than they had in their previous eight matches combined. Domenico Berardi was at his swaggering best, running past defenders one moment and playing the pivot the next as he set up his team’s first two goals before heading home the third from a corner. He provided the assist on Sassuolo’s fifth goal, too, with Armand Laurienté scoring from the penalty spot in between.
Olivier Giroud had a goal ruled out for Milan at 0-0, an early victim of Serie A’s newly introduced semi-automatic offside system, but after that they were barely in the game, falling behind 2-0, then 3-1 by the interval and 5-1 in the second half before Divock Origi scored a spectacular consolation.
How did we get here? Stefano Pioli sounded as perplexed as anyone: “Everything that has worked for us over the past two years has stopped working in the last month.” Milan were missing Fikayo Tomori and the decision to replace him with Matteo Gabbia backfired, the 23-year-old terrorised by Berardi and at fault on several goals. Would things have gone any differently, though, if the veteran Simon Kjær was selected instead? The Dane was on the pitch for three of the four goals Milan conceded against Lazio, and Tomori for the other.
Pioli had tried to give his team a jolt by dropping Rafael Leão and giving Charles De Ketelaere a first start in almost four months, but the €35m summer signing again failed to leave his mark. It is too soon to write off the 23-year-old off as a failed investment but Milan’s directors can certainly be accused of putting too many eggs in one basket.
There was never any question Milan had overachieved on their way to winning the title last term, Pioli drawing the best out of a young group, but also lucky that a thin squad was never exposed. The departure of Franck Kessié and the injury to Mike Maignan have left unfilled gaps.
Pioli signalled on Sunday he had given up hope of successfully defending the title, saying “our Scudetto will be getting into the Champions League”. It is a higher bar than another of the teams who were supposed to challenge Napoli can set. After Juventus lost 2-0 to Monza on Sunday, Allegri said his team needed to face up to the reality they are not safe from relegation.
Theirs is a unique situation, created by the 15-point penalty they were handed by the Italian Football Federation. They hardly looked like a team that belonged in a title fight, though, as they were beaten by these promoted opponents for the second time.
Monza were excellent, Patrick Ciurria and Dany Mota scoring both goals before half time while Gianluca Caprari had another disallowed for offside. Only four teams have collected more points since Raffaele Palladino was promoted from academy coach to take over their first team in September. Still, this was another low moment for Juventus in a month full of them. The only previous team to win their first two Serie A encounters with the Old Lady was Inter in 1930.
If not Milan or Juventus, who else is supposed to challenge Napoli for the title? Inter looked the part when they beat Naploli at the start of the year but a draw with Monza and loss to Empoli has left them 13 points back. That was the same gap Roma faced before kickoff. Mourinho’s assessment that the Scudetto was already decided did not stop his team from treating the game as a six-pointer. Milan’s collapse and Juventus’s points deduction have opened a path for Roma to qualify for the Champions League and perhaps to fight for second place.
Napoli took the lead with a goal-of-the-season contender from Victor Osimhen, who manoeuvred Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s cross from his chest to his thigh to his boot and then the roof of the net without the ball touching the floor. Roma fought back admirably, opposing superior technicality with defiant tenacity, an outmatched boxer holding their ground in the middle of the ring and finding a way to trade blows.
When Nicola Zalewski swung at the back post in the 75th minute, Stephan El Shaarawy arrived with the follow-up jab for 1-1. But parity did not last. Giovanni Simeone came off the bench to score a fine winner for Napoli, punishing loose marking from Chris Smalling as he spun to sweep a left-foot shot into the top-right corner.
It was another reminder of why the leaders are where they are, a depth unmatched in the league. “Our whole squad was playing that game,” said the Napoli manager, Luciano Spalletti. “Even those who were on the bench – right down to the kitman.”
He resisted title talk, saying his team just needed to stay focused on the next game. Pre-game he had drawn a parallel with a bike accident he suffered in September, saying that sometimes when you’re having a pleasant ride it’s easy to lose your concentration and get distracted by the view. Quietly, he might even have been grateful to Roma for making this trip less serene.