Napoli's title charge enters vital 10 days as Inter hope Lukaku return can reignite season

By Sports Desk January 04, 2023

Most football seasons carry a degree of unpredictability; that's just the nature of sport.

But it's certainly arguable that this season is among the least predictable in living memory due to the unique timing of the World Cup, which took place across November and December for the first time.

In Italy, Napoli would've presumably been the team most frustrated by the timing of Qatar 2022. On course for a first Scudetto since 1990 and the days of Diego Maradona, the Partenopei had been head and shoulders above the rest in Serie A before the World Cup and among the most eye-catching sides in Europe.

They'd lost just once – a 2-0 Champions League defeat at Liverpool – and won all but three matches across all competitions prior to the season's break. So, the key question facing them now is, can momentum survive a two-month hiatus?

The next 10 days or so will give us a fairly clear indication of just how good Napoli are.

Napoli's testing return

Napoli return to action in 2023 with one of the most-anticipated games of the season. Not only are their title credentials set for a thorough examination, but Inter could do with a positive result to kick-start their season.

Simone Inzaghi's men sit fifth, 11 points behind Napoli. A spell of four defeats in six Serie A games between August and October gave Inter an uphill struggle right from the early weeks of the season.

They recovered, to an extent, but did also lose to Juventus in early November. You'd have to think their chances of regaining the title they won in 2021, but relinquished to city rivals Milan last season, will disappear into the realms of impossibility if they are beaten on Wednesday.

Some might even suggest that's the case already. After all, Stats Perform's AI prediction model gives them only a 4.3 per cent chance of finishing the season top – though that is at least higher than the two teams directly above them.

It's not just this Inter clash that Napoli fans will have on their minds, however.

They host bitter rivals Juventus on January 13, and like Inter, the Bianconeri will also still harbour title hopes. That's assuming they don't suffer the unlikely fate of losing to Udinese – whose form tailed off after an incredible start – and winless Cremonese in the interim.

Perhaps all this talk of the title is a bit daft when you consider Napoli's clash with Juve won't even be the halfway point of the season: there remains a long way to go.

However, when a team has been as good as Napoli were before the World Cup, it's only normal to start considering how many more opportunities their rivals have.

Inter potentially have a joker in the pack, though.

Romelu's redemption?

It's been a difficult 18 months for Romelu Lukaku. His highly anticipated return to Chelsea was underwhelming, to say the least, and resulted in him making his way back to Inter.

"It's like coming home," he said. But injuries restricted the 29-year-old to just four appearances in Serie A before the World Cup, therefore Italy is very much still waiting for the real Lukaku to return.

In fact, the world is still waiting. Let's not forget, Lukaku did feature for Belgium in Qatar but did little to rebuild his fractured reputation.

Granted, injuries again limited his involvement but that performance against Croatia as Belgium were knocked out at the group stage was remarkable. He had five shots equalling 1.7 expected goals (xG), including three absolute sitters, yet he failed to convert any.

But if Lukaku does get back to anything like what he showed during his previous spell in San Siro, there's every reason to expect a slightly different Inter between now and the end of the season.

During those two campaigns with the Nerazzurri, Lukaku's haul of 47 league goals was bettered by only four players across the top five leagues. Similarly, his 35 non-penalty (np) strikes was only slightly above his np-xG (33.1 – also the fifth-highest in the top five leagues), which supports the idea he was dependable without being regularly lucky.

Of course, Antonio Conte's system at Inter was what many considered key in Lukaku's improvement. His pace, strength and running power – helped of course by his finishing ability – made the Belgian almost unplayable in a transition-based side.

Chelsea never saw the same player partly because Thomas Tuchel is a more possession-orientated coach; those opportunities to release Lukaku in behind defences just weren't as frequent and he arguably isn't technically good enough to be a key player in such a setup.

As such, Inzaghi was aware he'd have to change his tactics somewhat to adjust to Lukaku this season – this will be tested to the max over the coming weeks, and its success will likely determine Inter's campaign one way or the other.

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