January 17, 2022
It was the clichéd “game of two halves” for Venezia at Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo on Sunday afternoon. After falling behind to visitors Empoli and struggling to create, manager Paolo Zanetti would make a first-half double substitution to jump-start his attack, which finally started humming through the second half — and when that last bit of decisive ingenuity was needed, newly signed Luís Nani came on to provide it, setting up David Okereke for an equalizer less than two minutes into his club debut, as Venezia salvaged a point in a 1-1 draw in Giornata 22 of the 2021/22 Serie A season.
The match started at a frenetic pace, but it was Empoli creating the meaningful chances. In the 13th minute, Empoli top scorer Andrea Pinamonti snapped a header on goal that forced Luca Lezzerini into a diving save. Just three minutes later, influential midfielder Szymon Żurkowski found himself unmarked and unleashed a shot from distance that swerved just wide of the post. After those early warnings went unheeded, the Tuscan side found the back of the net in the 26th minute. On an Empoli throw-in, Venezia seemed to momentarily switch off, as midfielder Filippo Bandinelli latched onto the ball down the left wing and looped a cross to the back post for Żurkowski, who connected well enough on a volley that took a bounce and beat Lezzerini.
As they looked to respond, Venezia’s best chance of the first half came in the 32nd minute, when Ethan Ampadu played a long ball down the right wing for striker Thomas Henry, who controlled beautifully while holding off defenders and took it to the byline before pulling back for an onrushing Domen Črnigoj, but the Slovenian midfielder couldn’t settle the ball and sent his shot over the bar.
It was an encouraging move, but Venezia chances had been few and far between, and Zanetti had already seen enough. In 34th minute, Zanetti changed tactics, introducing Okereke as an outright striker to replace three-quarter striker Sofian Kiyine, and swapping in deep-lying distributor A.J. Vacca for gritty two-way midfielder Tanner Tessman.
Okereke was active straight away, and it would be a sign of things to come in the second half.
After the break, Venezia took control of the match, attacking channels on the left side, with Okereke constantly buzzing. As the half wore on, they would create sustained spells of pressure, pinning Empoli back into their end. But more than 25 minutes in, they were still searching for a breakthrough, until Zanetti brought the game-changer off the bench.
In the 72nd minute, Nani stepped on for his club debut — less than 72 hours after arriving in Venice — and just 1 minute and 55 seconds later, the Portuguese star’s quick mind and quick feet brought Venezia level. An instant impact, indeed.
Receiving the ball on the edge of the area, Nani played a one-two with Mattia Aramu, darting inside the box for the return pass and deftly threading it to Okereke, who was cool under pressure and slotted in his fifth goal of the season.
Venezia nearly found a winner three minutes later when Michaël Cuisance played Okereke in on goal, but the Nigerian’s shot was stopped by a strong hand from ‘keeper Guglielmo Vicario. And despite further continued pressure, Venezia would ultimately have to settle for a 1-1 draw, left to rue what could have been had the second half performance been on display from the start.
Venezia will certainly need to be at their absolute best for all 90 minutes on Saturday night, as they face reigning champions and league leaders Inter Milan at San Siro in Giornata 23.
Venezia 1-1 Empoli
Scorers: Żurkowski 26’, Okereke 73’
Venezia (4-3-2-1): Lezzerini, Ampadu, Caldara, Ceccaroni, Molinaro (Nani 72’), Črnigoj, Tessmann (Vacca 34’), Cuisance, Aramu (Busio 80’), Kiyine (Okereke 35’), Henry
Subs not used: Mäenpää, Neri, Modolo, Fiordilino, Peretz, Heymans, Sigurðsson
Coach: Paolo Zanetti
Empoli (4-3-1-2): Vicario, Stojanović, Ismajli, Tonelli, Fiamozzi, Ricci, Henderson, Bandinelli (Štulac 84’), Żurkowski (Asllani 79’), Bajrami (Cutrone 84’), Pinamonti
Subs not used: Ujkani, Romagnoli, Mancuso, Fazzini, La Mantia, Damiani, Furlan, Rizza, Pezzola
Coach: Aurelio Andreazzoli