x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Jitters are getting the better of Napoli

Nerves in Napoli are on edge. This is not a new condition in the capital of Italy's south, but on Sunday night it was a straightforward one to diagnose.

Nerves in Napoli are on edge. This is not a new condition in the capital of Italy's south, but on Sunday night it was a straightforward one to diagnose.

In the final seven minutes of their meeting with Udinese at an expectant San Paolo, Napoli's leading scorer Edinson Cavani had two outstanding opportunities to make himself once again Serie A's top goalscorer. He fluffed both.

The first came from the penalty spot, after Maurizio Domizzi, the Udinese defender, had wrestled Cristiano Lucarelli to a standstill and even given him a sly punch to the head during an episode of Greco-Roman freestyle.

Domizzi was sent off, before Samir Handanovic in the Udinese goal barely had to take a gentle step to his right to keep out a poor spot kick from Cavani. With that miss, AC Milan had moved further towards their first scudetto since 2004/05. Napoli were losing 2-0 at the time, and the gap between first and second spot in the table is six points with five matches left to play.

Cavani might have made some amends in injury time. A looping ball into the penalty box dropped kindly for the striker, well positioned - as he has been all campaign - to finish from close range.

The Uruguayan teed up a volley with plenty of back lift. Then he completely missed the ball, swung through an air-shot that would have embarrassed him even more acutely had his colleague Giuseppe Mascara not finished with more efficiency. Napoli had their goal but had been left with too little time to claim any points.

So it was that Milan emerged from the weekend in such a strong position that their head coach Massimiliano Allegri could declare that not to claim the title from here would be "suicidal". Others will reckon the various forms of hara-kiri committed by their competitors have aided Milan to the summit.

Napoli's defeat by Udinese followed a series of four successive wins, but confirmed a suspicion that faced with the top teams, the Neapolitans look vulnerable.

Fourth-placed Lazio scored three times against Napoli - but still lost in a seven-goal thriller - earlier this month, and Cavani's team have also lost since the new year to third-placed Inter Milan, and by 3-0 to AC Milan.

Udinese, moreover, have now completed a double over Napoli, and with Sunday's win reminded doubting audiences that they too are among the top contenders.

Bouncing back to form without the absent Antonio di Natale - he remains the league's top goalscorer, thanks to Cavani's jitters - and the injured Alexis Sanchez encouraged Francesco Guidolin, their coach, to declare "we want Champions League football," a prospect that had been weakened by two defeats ahead of the trip to Naples.

Guidolin mastered Sunday's situation better than Walter Mazzari, Napoli's admired coach. Udinese blunted their opponents' vivid threat from their attacking full-backs, which meant Cavani did more scavenging for the ball in wider positions.

Without Sanchez, Udinese are less imaginative but they still have Gokhan Inler to produce the unexpected in midfield and it was his long shot, deflected off Paolo Cannavaro, which resulted in the breakthrough. Inler's celebrations were muted, which hardly cooled the widely circulated rumour he is on his way to Napoli next season.

If Inler is soon be an former Udinese player, then German Denis is very much an ex-Napoli man. He reminded his old constituents he can lead a forward line with ruggedness and aplomb. Denis scored Udinese's second.

There are, for the last time for a while, four Champions League qualifying places from Serie A this season. For 2011/12, it will be just three. And the scrap for that quartet of prizes is fierce, with six points separating second and fifth, and Lazio just a point above Udinese and three behind Inter.

There are plenty of direct scuffles to come, too. Inter must still play Lazio and Napoli, while Lazio will also meet Udinese. And none of them can boast much consistency right now. It promises to be engrossing.