Most football seasons are somewhat unpredictable; such is the nature of sports.
But it’s certainly debatable that this season is one of the least predictable in living memory due to the unique timing of the World Cup, which first took place in November and December.
In Italy, Napoli would appear to be the team most disappointed with the timing of Qatar 2022. On the way to the first Scudetto since 1990 and the time of Diego Maradona, the Parthenopei were head and shoulders above the rest in Serie A before the World Cup and among the most attractive sides in Europe.
They have only lost once – a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League – and have won all but three of their matches in all competitions before the season’s break. So, the key question they are facing right now is, can the momentum sustain a two-month hiatus?
The next 10 days or so will give us a pretty clear idea of how good Napoli are.
Napoli are back for testing
Napoli will return to action in 2023 with one of the most anticipated games of the season. Not only do their title data need to be scrutinized, but Inter can make a positive comeback to kickstart their season.
Simone Inzaghi’s men are in fifth place, 11 points behind Napoli. Four defeats in six Serie A games between August and October put Inter in a tough fight from the first weeks of the season.
They recovered to some extent but also lost to Juventus in early November. You would have to think that their chances of regaining the title they won in 2021 but lost to city rivals Milan last season would be undone if they were beaten on Wednesday.
Some may even suggest that this is already the case. After all, Stats Perform’s AI predictive model gives them only a 4.3% chance of finishing first in the season, though that’s at least higher than the two teams directly above them.
However, Napoli fans will not only think about this match against Inter.
They will take on bitter rival Juventus on January 13 and, like Inter, the Bianconeri still harbor title hopes. That’s assuming they don’t suffer the unlikely fate of losing to Udinese, whose form dwindled after an incredible start, and losing to Cremonese in between.
Perhaps all this title talk is a bit silly when you consider that Napoli’s clash with Juventus won’t even be the middle of the season: there’s still a long way to go.
However, when a team was as good as Napoli before the World Cup, it’s normal to start thinking about how many more opportunities their rivals have.
However, Inter potentially have a wild card.
Atonement for Romelu?
It has been a difficult 18 months for Romelu Lukaku. His long-awaited return to Chelsea was underwhelming to say the least and he returned to Inter as a result.
“It’s like coming home,” he said. But injuries have limited the 29-year-old to just four Serie A games ahead of the World Cup, so Italy is still waiting for the real Lukaku to return.
In fact, the world is still waiting. Let’s not forget that Lukaku played for Belgium in Qatar, but did little to restore his shattered reputation.
Of course, injuries again limited his participation, but the game against Croatia, with Belgium eliminated in the group stage, was remarkable. He had five shots equal to 1.7 expected goals (xG), including three absolute sitters, but didn’t convert any.
But if Lukaku returns to something similar to what he showed during his previous spell at the San Siro, there’s every reason to expect Inter to be a little different for the rest of the season.
During these two campaigns for the Nerazzurri, Lukaku scored 47 goals and was surpassed by only four players in the top five leagues. Similarly, his 35 non-penalty shots (np) were only slightly above his np-xG (33.1 – also fifth in the top 5 leagues), lending support to the idea that he was a solid player even though he was consistently unlucky .
Of course, Antonio Conte’s system at Inter was what many saw as the key to Lukaku’s improvement. His speed, strength and running speed – aided, of course, by his ability to finish – made the Belgian almost unplayable in a transfer team.
Chelsea have never seen the same player in part because Thomas Tuchel is more ball oriented; those opportunities to release Lukaku from defense were not as frequent, and he may not be technically good enough to be a key player in this setup.
As such, Inzaghi knew he would have to change his tactics somewhat to accommodate Lukaku this season – that would be tested as much as possible in the coming weeks and his success would likely define Inter’s campaign one way or another.