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No moral victories as Napoli loses at Inter Milan

Dec 10, 2012, 12:36 AM EDT

FC Internazionale Milano v SSC Napoli - Serie A Getty Images

If Roberto Mancini was indignant after his team’s loss to Manchester United, Walter Mazzarri had reason to be irate. Manchester City’s boss spent his post-match interviews insisting his team was the better side in Sunday’s Manchester Derby, but his team’s perceived dominance was nothing compared to the pressure Napoli maintained on Inter Milan throughout Sunday’s match at the San Siro.

Unfortunately, just like City, Napoli came up short, dropping the 2-1 result and a place in the table to Internazionale. The Nerazzurri now sit second in Serie A, four points behind Juventus. Napoli, the other main threat to Juve;s defense, trail by five.

The Azzurri controlled play from the opening kickoff only to see Inter stop prove feisty every time their visitors tried to initiate an attacking move. Napoli’s early energy was defused by a well-timed challenges, clearing balls into the combative midfield before Napoli’s Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami regained possession and cycled Napoli into a new attack.

That dynamic changed in the eighth minute when Inter’s Fredy Guarin latched onto a corner from the left, perfectly hitting a ball inside Morgan De Sanctis’s left post for the opener. On a restart from Antonio Cassano lofted well beyond the middle of the area, Guarin connected with the ball just before it hit the ground, an attempt we normally see end up in the stands. This time, Guarin drove the ball on goal while De Sanctis stopped short of the near post to try to maintain position for a cross-goal shot. The gap gave Gaurin enough room for the opener.

After the score, Inter’s combativeness went away. Starting both Javier Zanetti and Walter Gargano in the midfield of their 3-5-2 formation, the Nerazzurri stopped challenging and started parrying Napoli’s attacks, a stance that persisted through the end of the match. The posture allowed Mazzarri’s team to complete 83 percent of their passes while holding 63 percent of the ball, outshooting Inter 21 to 8 (total shots). Under siege in the second half, Inter leveraged a late first half goal from Diego Milito to hold out for a 2-1 win. Napoli’s only goal came from Edinson Cavani in the 54th minute.

It was Inter’s first big win since beating Juventus on Nov. 3, a victory that announced Andrea Strammacioni’s team as potential title contenders. Unfortunately, Inter regressed in the wake of that win, earning only one point in their next three matches. With a trip to Lazio on Saturday, Strammacioni can not afford to let his team fall into a similar lapse.

But given the way the game played out, Sunday’s result will be seen as more of a road bump for Napoli than a pedestal for Inter. The Nerazzurri merely illustrated their capacity, whereas Napoli, in the third year of their run as one of the better teams in Serie A, are looking for more than mere good performances.

After losing Ezequiel Lavezzi to Paris Saint-Germain this summer, there is a lingering feeling that the window for this team may be closing. Whether that end point is the sale of Cavani or the loss of more supporting parts, Napoli’s time is now. As such, games like Sunday’s at the San Siro – in front of a surprisingly supportive crowd, against a team that’s there to be beaten – are discouraging.

Napoli (and the rest of Italy) can take solace in the fact that Juventus doesn’t appear ready to pull away. While the gap to the holders may be five points, the Partenopei have every reason to believe they are just as capable as the leaders.

Going forward, they’ll need to convert strong performances like Sunday’s into full points if they’re to unseat the champions.

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