In the eight days between Inter’s 4-0 victory over Frosinone last weekend and Monday night’s trip to Napoli, Roberto Mancini would have devoted much of his time to coming up with a strategy to stop Mauricio Sarri’s in-form outfit from scoring. After 65 seconds at the Stadio San Paolo, those plans lay in ruins.

It was an awful start from Inter, who fell behind almost instantly when Gonzalo Higuain clinically fired the ball past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and into the back of the net. They struggled to create anything of note for the remainder of the first period, and things got even worse in the 44th minute when left-back Yuto Nagatomo was given his marching orders after being shown his second yellow card.

It was always going to be an extremely difficult task for the visitors from then on, but their spirited second-half showing will have given Mancini and the club’s fans hope that they are genuine title contenders this term. After Adem Ljajic pulled a goal back following Higuain’s second of the evening just after the hour-mark, Inter had had some excellent chances to grab an equaliser: Ljajic and Marcelo Brozovic could have made better decisions in promising positions, before substitute Stevan Jovetic and centre-back Joao Miranda both hit the post in injury time, with the latter’s header brilliantly pushed on to the woodwork by Pepe Reina.

In the end, Napoli were a little fortunate to escape with all three points, but the two-time Scudetto winners will simply be delighted that they hung on for the victory that sent them top of the Serie A table after 14 matches for the first time since 1989/90, the year in which they last won the league. Having begun the campaign looking to consolidate under new boss Sarri and, at best, launch a challenge for the Champions League places, Napoli are now many people’s favourites for the championship.

Higuain is a big reason for that tag, with his brace against Inter boosting his goal tally for the season to 12. No-one in the division has hit the back of the net more often than the Argentina international, whose display against Inter would have been all the more pleasing after some significant misses in big games for club and country in the last 18 months or so.

Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon have also impressed as part of an exciting front three, with Allan, Jorginho and captain Marek Hamsik – redeployed deeper in the pitch by Sarri – all thriving as part of a midfield trio in behind.

Further back, centre-halves Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol are both much-improved, with full-backs Faouzi Ghoulah and Elseid Hysaj also earning plaudits as part of a backline that has conceded only nine goals in the league, a record bettered by no other Serie A side. Their 26 goals scored, meanwhile, makes Napoli the third-most productive attackers in Italy’s top flight behind Roma and Fiorentina.

The signs, then, are increasingly positive for Sarri’s charges, who have taken 29 points from the last 33 on offer. If they maintain their current performance levels in the coming weeks, Napoli will be extremely difficult to knock off top spot.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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