Serie A 21/22: Napoli 2-0 Venezia

August 23, 2021

It was set to be a trial by fire. Traveling south to Campania, Venezia’s first Serie A campaign in 19 seasons began against Napoli at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Sunday night. With eight of Venezia’s starting XI making their Serie A debuts, i Leoni fought valiantly and were right in the match through the first hour, but second-half goals from Lorenzo Insigne and Eljif Elmas ultimately guided a 10-man Napoli side to a 2-0 victory.

Coming into the match, four core players from last season — captain Marco Modolo, right-back Pasquale Mazzocchi, midfielder A.J. Vacca, and attacker Mattia Aramu — were unavailable due to suspension, while injured midfielder Domen Črnigoj and newcomers Gianluca Busio and David Okereke were not ready for selection, leaving Venezia manager Paolo Zanetti with a limited squad.

In attack, last season’s leading scorer Francesco Forte started at center forward with wingers Dennis Johnsen and Francesco Di Mariano — a front three that had plenty of experience playing together. In midfield, Luca Fiordilino, who recently signed a new contract through 2025, started alongside two summer signings, Israel international Dor Peretz and young Belgian Daan Heymans. At the back were Venezia’s only two players with significant Serie A experience, left-back Cristiano Molinaro and AC Milan loanee Mattia Caldara, who lined up with steady center-back Pietro Ceccaroni and Nigerian international and Benfica loanee Tyronne Ebuehi. In goal, Finnish international ‘keeper Niki Mäenpää returned, after playing a critical role in Venezia’s promotion.

The match started with Venezia trying to play the ball out of the back, looking to find Johnsen and Di Mariano on the wings, but Napoli’s speed and intense pressing from their front three — in particular, center forward Victor Osimhen — made this difficult, especially for Mäenpää. On three occasions within the first 15 minutes, some uncharacteristically loose control and passing from Mäenpää led to quick turnovers and dangerous chances for Napoli, with Osimhen very nearly deflecting one clearance directly into the net.

By the 23rd minute, however, Osimhen was suddenly off the pitch. On a Napoli corner kick, the young Nigerian struck Heymans and was shown a straight red by the referee. Osimhen had been Napoli’s most threatening player to this point, and with his team now down to 10 men, Venezia gained some relief and extra space, with a chance to progress further up the pitch.

But Venezia were still cautious, and the team struggled to build consistent attacks, remaining more dependent on the counter, with probing crosses into the box few and far between. Venezia tried time and again to work the ball through Forte, but Napoli center-backs Kalidou Koulibaly and Kostas Manolas controlled their area and blanketed Venezia’s no. 9.

Meanwhile, Venezia couldn’t stop picking up yellow cards in dealing with Napoli’s pace. By half-time, Heymans, Fiordilino, Caldara, and Ebuehi had all been booked, putting two-thirds of the midfield and one-half of the backline at risk. It was a first half in which both teams had committed some self-inflicted damage, but neither side had found a way to capitalize.

In the second half, Napoli turned up the pressure, and in the 56th minute they earned a penalty when a cross from Mário Rui came off Caldara’s hand. But Insigne stepped up to the spot and skied his penalty over the frame, giving Venezia a lifeline in the match.

In the 59th minute, Caldara played a long pass to Johnsen, who headed the ball down for Heymans to strike strongly on goal, but it was straight at 'keeper Alex Meret. For a moment, it seemed Venezia were gaining momentum, and with just over 30 minutes to go, they might have a shot at earning a result.

Just minutes later, though, Napoli would win another penalty, when a cross from right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo struck Ceccaroni’s hand in the box. Insigne had a second chance and drilled his penalty shot low and hard to Mäenpää’s opposite side, putting the home side in front in the 62nd minute.

Zanetti immediately responded by making two substitutions, bringing on two more new signings in youth U.S. international Tanner Tessmann and Iceland international Arnór Sigurðsson.

Soon after, Venezia created their best chance of the match through Dennis Johnsen, who was the team's most threatening player on the night. In the 68th minute, the young Norwegian beat his marker, dribbled to the byline, and set up Forte in position to fire a left-footed shot from about six yards out — only to see the ball strike the near-post. It ended up being Venezia’s only clear-cut opportunity to equalize.

In the 72nd minute, Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti brought on forward Hirving Lozano and midfielder Gianluca Gaetano and the moves were instantly rewarded. Combining with Gaetano, Lozano dribbled through the heart of Venezia’s midfield and set up Eljif Elmas, who cut in from the left and fired past Mäenpää’s and inside the near post to seal the result.

Venezia will return to action on Friday night, heading north to take on Udinese at Dacia Arena.