Football Features

Napoli 1-1 Inter: A story of redemption for Ospina as Mertens makes history in Coppa Italia semi-final

By Chris Smith

Published: 22:00, 13 June 2020

Napoli drew 1-1 with Inter Milan in the Coppa Italia semi-final second leg on Saturday night, winning 2-1 on aggregate to set up a date with Juventus in the final. 

Having taken a 1-0 lead from the first leg at the San Siro before the temporary suspension of football Italy, the Partenopei were heavy favourites heading into the second leg at the San Paolo. However, it was anything but a straightforward return to action for Gennaro Gattuso’s men.

An early blunder made in north London

Inter were surprisingly quick out of the blocks in Naples, clearly wishing to catch the home side flat-footed in a bid to wipe out that first-leg deficit, and wipe it out they did.

However, it wasn’t through slick attacking play or precision finishing from Lautaro Martinez or Romelu Lukaku which yielded Inter’s breakthrough, but a stroke of luck and a blunder from Napoli ‘keeper David Ospina.

Despite his reputation as a set-piece specialist, Christian Eriksen frustrated many during his time with Tottenham Hotspur thanks to his habit of hitting the first man with his corners. On Saturday, after just two minutes, it appeared the Denmark international was up to his old tricks, drilling the ball straight into the path of Napoli right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo. However, instead of heading the ball clear, Di Lorenzo seemed to lose the flight of the ball, ducking underneath it and allowing it to fly toward Ospina.

The former Arsenal stopper seemed completely unprepared for the ball to enter his six-yard box and desperately attempted to scramble back toward his line. In almost comical fashion, the ball slipped between his legs and into the back of the net.

Just two years ago, this sequence of events would have made it 1-0 to Tottenham in a north London derby but instead, Ospina’s mistake allowed Inter Milan to go 1-0 up on the night against his Napoli side, and draw level at 1-1 across the tie.

Redemption for Ospina as Inter press the advantage

From there, Inter pressed on. Antonio Conte’s side morphed into a 4-2-4 system with right-wing-back Antonio Candreva pushing aggressively high up the pitch to join Lukaku, Martinez and Eriksen in a front four, while Milan Skriniar shifted across as a pseudo-right-back to keep things tight at the back. Ashley Young was also given licence to push forward, but it was down Inter’s right where all the action was happening.

The link-up between Lukaku and Candreva was particularly effective, with the Belgian dropping into the No.10 space to receive the ball before spinning and feeding his Italian teammate running in behind. This sequence almost yielded another goal on a number of occasions but where Ospina was caught cold earlier on, he was equal to everything Inter threw at him thereafter, making saves from Lukaku and, most impressively, Candreva’s powerful effort from close range.

Mertens makes history to make Inter pay

Inter’s wastefulness would not go unpunished. With half-time approaching, Ospina — now brimming with confidence — arrowed a wonderful ball to Lorenzo Insigne just inside the Inter half with laser-guided precision. Insigne controlled expertly and charged toward the opposition penalty area.

With Conte’s defence all at sea, Insigne performed the simple task of squaring it to strike partner Dries Mertens, who needed no second invitation to slip the ball beyond Samir Handanovic.

In doing so, he not only fired his side 2-1 ahead on aggregate but also surpassed Marek Hamsik as Napoli’s all-time greatest scorer with 122 goals.

Inter could have easily found themselves 3-0 up on the night but thanks to a combination of wastefulness in front of goal, goalkeeping brilliance from Ospina and ice-cool finishing from Mertens, they were trailing on aggregate once again.

Napoli suffocate Inter to set up date with Sarri’s Juventus

The second half became much more attritional, with Inter dominating possession, desperately trying to work some gaps in the Napoli defence in search of a second goal. However, Gattuso’s backline stood firm.

Time and again, the Partenopei repelled Inter. Centre-backs Kalidou Koulibaly and Nikola Maksimovic were particularly impressive, combining to win seven aerial duels, make five interceptions and complete 19 clearances between the two of them.

The more Inter pushed forward, the more they left their back door open and the threat of Insigne, Mertens and Matteo Politano — later replaced by Jose Callejon — hitting them on the break remained throughout, with Napoli’s attacking trident exploiting space, committing defenders to one-on-one duels and interchanging with a wonderful level of fluidity.

Napoli didn’t need another goal, though, their defence did the job. An Alexis Sanchez effort fizzed just wide of the far post and a couple of Eriksen efforts well-saved by the fantastic Ospina were as close as Inter came during the second half and although their backs were to the wall toward the end, Gattuso’s side deserve great credit for their determination in getting the job done. Ospina will cruelly miss the final after receiving a yellow card for time-wasting late on, but few Napoli fans will forget the role he played in getting them there.

Juventus pose one hell of a test in Wednesday’s final but despite holding a man advantage after an early Ante Rebic red card, Maurizio Sarri’s men struggled themselves to break down a stubborn AC Milan side in the other semi-final second leg, perhaps offering a blueprint to Gattuso for how to stifle the considerable attacking threats of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala et al.

And speaking of redemption, if Napoli can pull off an unlikely win over the Old Lady — managed by their former boss Sarri, no less — on Wednesday, it will offer a silver lining to a grind of a season which has seen the club part ways with Carlo Ancelotti, go to war with itself on and off the pitch and slip to sixth in the Serie A table prior to the suspension of play.