iof one image could sum up Serie A’s return from the international break then it was Luciano Spalletti, 62 Anni, throwing himself face-first down on to the San Siro turf. The Napoli manager had nothing left, his emotions spent after seeing Dries Mertens flash a volley over the bar from six yards out in the 97th minute of his team’s game at Inter.
Spalletti was floored, and so were the rest of us, on a weekend of dizzying drama. Two days in which the last two undefeated sides in Italy’s top league – in all of Europe’s top leagues – scored five goals between them but lost. A round of matches so eventful that José Mourinho having his bacon saved by a spectacular cameo from a teenager was relegated to a footnote.
Where to start? At the Stadio Artemio Franchi, forse, where Fiorentina beat Milan 4-3. Era, all at once, not as close as that scoreline suggests, and somehow even closer. Il Rossoneri were 3-0 down at one stage, and their final goal was a consolation in the fifth minute of injury time. Yet they created more chances than their opponents and were undone by self-sabotage.
Fiorentina’s first goal was a gift, Ciprian Tatarusanu letting a corner drop from his hands before Joseph Alfred Duncan forced it home. So was their fourth, Theo Hernández dawdling on the edge of his box, responding too slowly to teammates’ warnings of Nicolás González closing in. The Argentinian picked his pocket and Dusan Vlahovic scored.
Then again, Milan’s first goal was served to them on a platter, pure, Giacomo Bonaventura somehow failing to notice that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was standing directly between him and Lorenzo Venuti – the intended target of his pass. Fiorentina’s high press and willingness to play out from the back had put them on top but their reluctance to ease up, even after their third goal, almost cost them.
What a boring thought that would be to dwell on, at the end of an engrossing game. Better to enjoy the flair of Ricky Saponara, curling the ball into the top corner against his former club. Better to revel in the emerging talent of Vlahovic, who scored his 26th and then 27th goals of this calendar year – matching a club record held since 1960 by Kurt Hamrin.
Saponara is a fun player to watch, possessed of rare technical qualities but unlikely, a 29, to ever deliver fully on the potential that persuaded Milan to sign him from Empoli back in 2013. As Fiorentina’s manager, Vincenzo Italiano, put it on Saturday: “Ricky is a particular kid, you always have to find the right words to stimulate him.”
Vlahovic is something different: a 21-year-old pursuing excellence with absolute single-mindedness. He has been jeered and whistled by sections of Fiorentina’s fanbase this season after declining to extend a contract that expires at the end of next season. Yet he has carried on performing brilliantly, these latest goals moving him level with Ciro Immobile at the top of the Serie A scoring charts on 10 goals after 13 Giochi.
He is so much more than those numbers, a powerful, aggressive No 9 who can dominate in the air at 6ft 3in but also on the floor. Vlahovic’s first goal – Fiorentina’s third – on Saturday was wonderfully taken, taming Duncan’s chipped pass on the outside of his boot while sprinting at full pelt before rounding the keeper and finishing from an acute angle.
His next career move remains the subject of speculation. Optimistic Fiorentina supporters found hope in the way he celebrated his final goal, pointing at the floor, but that gesture likely did not mean what they wished it would. All indications are that he intends to move on to a richer club with designs on the biggest trophies, though his first choice might be to depart at the end of the campaign, ideally after delivering Fiorentina back into European competition for the first time in five years.
Il Viola would prefer to sell soon than let him leave for nothing in 18 months’ time’, but only if someone is willing to meet their substantial asking price. They have fielded enquiries from several leading European clubs but the greatest fear for supporters is that Vlahovic will follow in the footsteps of Federico Chiesa and join their great rivals Juventus.
For now, his goals have propelled Fiorentina to joint-sixth in the table. Their win was enjoyed by Milan’s title rivals as well. Inter and Napoli met one day later, knowing they had each been presented with an opportunity.
Il Partenopei had a chance to go clear at the top. A win would move them ahead of Milan and give them a 10-point advantage over Inter, the reigning champions. When Piotr Zielinski fired them ahead in the 17th-minute, finishing a move he had started by winning possession from Nicolò Barella, that was the way things appeared to be heading.
But Inter roared back. Hakan Calhanoglu equalised from the penalty spot after Kalidou Koulibaly handballed and Ivan Perisic put his team in front before half-time with a header. Now they were the ones imposing themselves in midfield, cutting the supply lines between Fabián Ruiz and Zielinski. When Joaquin Correa served Lautaro Martínez to make it 3-1 after an hour, it felt like the game had been decided.
It hadn’t. Napoli lost their best goalscorer, Victor Osimhen, shortly before Martínez struck, the Nigerian fracturing his cheekbone in a collision with Milan Skriniar. Yet Mertens came off the bench and scored a goal out of nowhere. Napoli ended the game on top, Mario Rui forcing a brilliant save from Samir Handanovic in injury time, before the Belgian’s close-range miss sent Spalletti to the turf.
Inter clung on to win 3-2, closing the gap on Napoli and Milan to four points. It was a brilliant weekend for them, and a potentially catastrophic one for their opponents, for whom Osimhen will be out for at least a month. With the Africa Cup of Nations coming up at the start of next year, the striker might not play another club game before February.
The timing could not be worse. This was the first of nine games in 32 days for Napoli. That run includes matches with Milan, Atalanta and Lazio.
Then again, who knows what is coming next in a season full of surprises? Later that evening, with Roma struggling to break down a stubborn Genoa, Mourinho chose to leave Nicolò Zaniolo on the bench and throw an academy player, Felix Afena-Gyan, on instead. The 18-year-old struck twice to win the game, his second a blistering effort from outside the box.
“I promised him a pair of shoes he likes that cost €800,” Mourinho told Dazn at full-time. “He came afterward to remind me.” A price worth paying, senza dubbio. That bill will come with happy memories attached, unlike the one for cleaning Spalletti’s tracksuit.