Had Mario Rui’s injury-time header rippled the back of the Inter net rather than spin agonisingly over the crossbar off the hands of Samir Handanovic, Napoli would have been leaving the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza with a point and some claiming it the mark of potential Scudetto winners.
However, after suffering their first Serie A loss of the campaign in a hard-fought 3-2 defeat to the Nerazzurri, the focus switched to the lesson they had apparently received from the reigning champions, and that a tough run of fixtures will now highlight the shortcomings of these title contenders.
During a combative encounter in Milan, though, the Partenopei looked every bit the equal of the reigning champions during the opening exchanges – despite failing to score in their last four Serie A trips to face Inter at San Siro – and took a deservedly lead when Piotr Zielinski finished an impressive counterattack on 17 minutes.
Having conceded the fewest league goals this term before kick-off, Inter could have soon lost faith in the inability of their attacking forays to penetrate the Neapolitan rearguard, but then came the first slice of misfortune that would play a huge role in overcoming the visitors.
When Nicolo Barella smashed Matteo Darmian’s cutback towards goal on 23 minutes, the ball slammed against the arm of Kalidou Koulibaly, just a few yards away, and a penalty was awarded, albeit after VAR intervention, and despatched by Hakan Calhanoglu.
Unfortunate and certainly unintentional from the Napoli defender, the visitors could probably have expected to have conceded against the league’s top scorers and did not alter their game plan. The rest of the half was a demonstration of end-to-end attacking from both sides that Inter ultimately won when Ivan Perisic’s header just made it over the line in stoppage time.
Then came the second – and arguably most important – slice of bad luck for the visitors when striker Victor Osimhen came off worse in a violent clash of heads with Nerazzurri centre-back Milan Skriniar on 50 minutes. As Andrea Petagna arrived in place of the Nigerian, the former Lille man was unsteady on his feet and obviously unable to see through his left eye.
Although Dries Mertens would eventually arrive and score a late consolation goal, you could not find more contrasting styles for what on the surface was a like-for-like replacement. Whereas Osimhen was utilising his pace and strength in wide areas to terrorise than Inter defence, as well as his aerial prowess, Petagna was a less mobile target to be found and bring others into play.
Even without his dynamism in attack, though, the Partenopei continued to threaten and, after Mertens goal, the last 18 minutes – eight of those for stoppages – would have been a difficult viewing for Interisti, as they watched their team do all they could to withstand the visitors, often hacking the ball away from danger frantically.
While the reality is that Napoli left Milan with zero points, they were also an arm’s length, a significant injury, and an unfortunate deflection away from being heralded as legitimate favourites for this season’s Serie A title.