IIf one image could sum up Serie A’s return from the international break, it was Luciano Spalletti, 62, who threw himself face down on the turf of San Siro. Napoli’s coach had an extra briefing during the break, and after that Dries Mertens had solid organization.
Spalletti was on the floor, and so were the rest of us, on a weekend of dizzying drama. Two days where the last two unbeaten teams in Italy’s best league – in all of Europe’s best leagues – scored five goals between them, but lost. A round of matches so eventful that José Mourinho, who had his bacon saved by a spectacular cameo from a teenager, was referred to a footnote.
Where to start? Maybe at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, where Fiorentina beat Milan 4-3. It was at one time not as close as the scoreline suggests, and somehow even closer. That Rossoneri was 3-0 down at one point and their last goal was a consolation in the fifth minute of overtime. Yet they created more chances than their opponents and were regretted by self-sabotage.
Fiorentina’s first goal was a gift, Ciprian Tatarusanu let a corner fall from his hands before Joseph Alfred Duncan forced it home. The same was their fourth, Theo Hernández dropped on the edge of his box and reacted too slowly to teammates’ warnings that Nicolás González was closing in. The Argentine took the pocket and Dusan Vlahovic scored.
Then again, Milan’s first goal was also served to them on a platter, Giacomo Bonaventura somehow could not notice that Zlatan Ibrahimovic stood directly between him and Lorenzo Venuti – the intended goal of his pass. Fiorentina’s high pressure and willingness to play from behind had brought them to the top, but their reluctance to relax, even after their third goal, almost cost them.
What a boring thought it would be to dwell on, at the end of a captivating game. It’s better to enjoy Ricky Saponara’s flair curling the ball in the top corner against his former club. It’s better to revel in Vlahovic’s new talent, who scored his 26th and then 27th goal this calendar year – matching a club record held since 1960 by Kurt Hamrin.
Saponara is a fun player to watch, possessed of rare technical qualities, but unlikely as a 29-year-old will ever fully deliver the potential that persuaded Milan to bring him from Empoli back in 2013. As Fiorentina’s manager, Vincenzo Italiano , it said Saturday: “Ricky is a special child, you always have to find the right words to stimulate him.”
Vlahovic is something else: a 21-year-old who strives for expertise with absolute determination. He has been ridiculed and whistled by parts of Fiorentina’s fan base this season after refusing to extend a contract that expires at the end of next season. Still, he continues to perform brilliantly, and those recent goals moved him on par with Ciro Immobile at the top of the Serie A scores of 10 goals after 13 games.
He is so much more than the numbers, a powerful, aggressive No. 9 that can dominate in the air at 6ft 3in but also on the floor. Vlahovic’s first goal – Fiorentina’s third – on Saturday was wonderfully taken, taming Duncan’s severed pass on the outside of his boot while sprinting with full fur before rounding the goalkeeper and finishing from a sharp angle.
His next career move is still the subject of speculation. Optimistic Fiorentina supporters found hope in the way he celebrated his ultimate goal by pointing to the floor, but that gesture probably did not mean what they wanted it to. All indications are that he intends to move on to a richer club with designs on the biggest trophies, although his first choice may be to leave the campaign at the end, ideally after delivering Fiorentina back to European competition for the first time in five years .
That Viola prefer to sell soon rather than let him travel for nothing in 18 months’, but only if someone is willing to meet their significant offer price. They have made inquiries from several leading European clubs, but the biggest fear for supporters is that Vlahovic will follow in the footsteps of Federico Chiesa and join their big rivals Juventus.
So far, his goal has led Fiorentina to a sixth place in the table. Their victory was also enjoyed by Milan’s title rivals. Inter and Napoli met a day later, knowing that they had each been given an opportunity.
That Parthenopei had a chance to go clear at the top. A victory would bring them ahead of Milan and give them a 10-point advantage over Inter, the reigning champions. When Piotr Zielinski made yet another studs-first tackle after 17 minutes, the referee was obliged to book the Nicolò Barella player for the second time, sending him off the pitch.
But Inter roared back. Hakan Calhanoglu equalized from the penalty spot after Kalidou Koulibaly had handballed, and Ivan Perisic brought his team in front before the break with a header. Now it was they who impressed themselves in midfield and cut the supply lines between Fabián Ruiz and Zielinski. When Joaquin Correa served Lautaro Martínez 3-1 after an hour, it felt like the match was settled.
It did not have it. Napoli lost their best goal scorer, Victor Osimhen, shortly before Martínez struck, where the Nigerian broke his cheekbone in a collision with Milan Skriniar. Still, Mertens came off the bench and scored a goal out of nowhere. Napoli ended the match at the top, Mario Rui forced a brilliant save from Samir Handanovic in overtime before the Belgian’s miss up close sent Spalletti on the turf.
Inter held on to win 3-2, closing the gap to Napoli and Milan to four points. It was a brilliant weekend for them, and a potentially disastrous weekend for their opponents, for whom Osimhen will be out for at least a month. With the Africa Cup of Nations on the way early next year, the striker may not play another club match before February.
The timing could not be worse. This was the first of nine matches in 32 days for Napoli. That race includes matches with Milan, Atalanta and Lazio.
So again, who knows what will come next in a season full of surprises? Later in the evening, as Roma struggled to break down a stubborn Genoa, Mourinho chose to leave Nicolò Zaniolo on the bench and throw an academy player, Felix Afena-Gyan, on the spot. The 18-year-old struck twice to win the match, his second being a fierce effort off the field.
“I promised him a pair of shoes he likes and which costs € 800,” Mourinho told Dazn full-time. “He came afterwards to remind me of that.” A price worth paying, no doubt. That bill will come with happy memories attached, as opposed to the one for cleaning Spalletti’s tracksuit.