In a jam-packed San Paolo, Inter and Napoli fought tooth and nail to decide which side deserved to be at the top of the Serie A this week. The other contenders for first place, Roma and Fiorentina, weren't able to win so this match gained even more importance.
This match started in the worst way possible for Inter. Just one minute into it, Higuain took advantage of a careless play by Murillo and found the back of the net with a beautiful finish just under the top corner of the goal. If this contest was already a hard one before the starting whistle, it basically became a mountain to climb in a blink of an eye.
After the disastrous start though, the Nerazzurri showed a different attitude compared to the awful performance against Fiorentina a few months ago. Mancio's men didn't lose confidence in themselves and tried to bounce back as soon as possible from the early goal conceded. The home side kept the grip on the match and created more than the opposition, but neither side had any clean goal scoring chances.
Both teams had no plans to push the gas pedal, but for slightly different reasons. Napoli, up by one, didn't want to take too many unnecessary risks and tried to control the rhythm of the match as much as they could. On the other hand, Inter are a team who are more capable of developing the maneuver from side to side rather than vertically with through balls and long runs. Because of that, the first half was slow and mostly boring, despite the Nerazzurri nearly scoring on a few occasions with a shot from outside the box by Fredy Guarin and when Ljajic, after a beautiful solo play, found Perisic all alone inside Napoli's area.
At the 44th minute, Nagatomo committed a silly foul on Allan, who was sprinting on the right flank, and picked up his second yellow of the match. The mountain Inter had to climb after Higuain's goal suddenly became taller. Nagatomo's poor decision spoiled a fairly good first half by Inter, which saw their chances of winning or even drawing this match dwindling.
Mancini decided to make a substitution during the halftime to avoid a debacle, replacing Icardi with a full-back, Telles, forcing Ljajic to become the only striker on the pitch. It was a reasonable change, especially because Telles also has good attacking skills that can help the team score even though he is a defender.
The referee had his hands full right away, with Allan and Guarin arguing animatedly after a foul by the Colombian, and both picked up a yellow in the occasion. After no significant play in the first 15 minutes of the half, Mancini decided to make another substitution, replacing the already booked Guarin with Biabiany.
The rhythm was even slower than in the first part of the game, but that didn't prevent Higuain from taking advantage of the only time Inter defense was a little out of balance. With incredible strength and technique he was able to beat Handanovic once again, making it 2-0 for the Azzurri.
The Nerazzurri weren't ready to give up. Not yet. In fact, Ljajic, helped by a lucky bounce inside Napoli's area, was able to score a crucial goal with a precise shot in the bottom right corner of the goal protected by Reina, who had previously been unbeaten in 354 consecutive minutes. Despite still being down a goal and playing down a man, Inter never lost faith in their qualities and kept pushing for a goal. The fatigue was clear by the visitors, but Ljajic and Brozovic were as active as ever, making sure to never let Napoli's defenders relax for more than a minute with great plays and continuous running.
Out of nowhere, like he did in occasion of the first two goals, Higuain unleashed all his strength and talent and tried to finally close the game with a great shot, but Samir Handanovic was able to prevent that from happening with a beautiful save. The match was not over.
The last two minutes of the contest were absolutely crazy. First, Jovetic sent a powerful header to the right post of Reina, who did nothing but look at the shot. Then Miranda, serving as striker in a desperate attempt of finding the net at the very last second, nearly succeeded in putting a header into the back of the net. But Reina mad a truly incredible save on Miranda's shot, finally delivering the win to his team.
Despite the loss, I liked this match. I loved the attitude showed by Inter, I loved the plays the Nerazzurri made even down one man. I loved the fact that this team played with heart and passion until the very end and believed in the draw until the referee blew the final whistle.
Hats off to Napoli, who have earned the number one spot in the Serie A with solid performances and great matches. Today they must thank Higuain for his amazing performance, but they surely proved once again, that they belong in the top spot of the table. And so do Inter.
Napoli: Reina; Ghoulam, Koulibaly, Albiol, Hysaj; Hamsik (David Lopez 80'), Jorginho, Allan; Insigne (El Kaddouri 70'), Higuain, Callejon(Maggio 87');
Goals: Higuain 2', 62'
Inter: Handanovic; D'Ambrosio, Miranda, Murillo, Nagatomo; Guarin (Biabiany 62'), Medel, Brozovic; Ljajic, Perisic (Perisic 83'); Icardi (Telles 45');
Goals: Ljajic 671