Napoli are sweating on the return of Victor Osimhen for the first leg of their all-Italian Champions League quarter-final as they head towards possibly the biggest two matches in the club’s history in unconvincing form.
Southern Italy’s biggest club need just four more wins from nine matches to secure their first league title since 1990 after a 2-1 win at Lecce — though they lacked a cutting edge which Luciano Spalletti’s side will need in Wednesday’s first leg at AC Milan.
Friday’s win only came about thanks to a bizarre own goal, and before Antonino Gallo’s unwitting backpass slipped through his surprised goalkeeper’s fingers Napoli were put on the back foot by lowly Lecce.
And while the three points take Napoli one step closer to the league crown as a performance it wasn’t much of an improvement from the previous weekend’s 4-0 home hammering at the hands of Milan.
Napoli have never before been in the last eight of the Champions League.
The way they have progressed through the competition, and being placed on the other side of the draw from European football’s contemporary powerhouses, has made them dark horses.
However as the season has progressed Napoli have become increasingly dependent on the dynamism of Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, and a thigh injury for Serie A’s leading scorer has highlighted his importance to his team’s overall play in their last two matches.
“It does become difficult without him, because he has this way of running into space and a physical presence, he can draw everyone to him and then create space,” said Spalletti after the Lecce win.
Spalletti will be hoping the Nigerian international returns on Wednesday also because he will probably be without the 24-year-old’s main replacement Giovanni Simeone, who suffered a thigh injury of his own after coming on as a substitute on Friday.
Osimhen has stayed — compared to previous seasons at least — relatively injury free this season and the impact that has had on Napoli is very easy to see.
Regardless of the 25 goals he has scored in all competitions, Osimhen provides Napoli the perfect outlet for his team when things aren’t going according to plan.
He works incredibly hard to chase down and hold onto long balls sent forward from under-pressure teammates, allowing midfielders to break through opposition pressing and latch on to his lay-offs.
When I say that I always put the team first, those aren’t just words. You can see that in how I play, right?” said Osimhen in an interview with France Football published on Saturday.
“It’s hunger, something I’ve always had inside myself. And thankfully here with the coach Spalletti you don’t have any choice — at Napoli the attackers are the first line of defence.”
Milan coach Stefano Pioli will have most of his first choice players available, save the injured Pierre Kalulu, after making a host of changes for their goalless draw with Empoli last Friday.
The San Siro has seen plenty of big European nights and will be packed out again on Wednesday as Milan hunt their first semi-final since they were the continent’s kings for the seventh and last time back in 2007.
Milan might not have beaten Empoli but it wasn’t for the want of trying, 23 shots and 70 percent possession in a dominant performance which only missed the goalscoring touch.
And Pioli is expected to stick with the same XI which gave Napoli the biggest beating of their otherwise triumphant season, in the hope that his team’s European pedigree shines through.