At the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, Olivier Giroud ran his hand over his beard and listened to a Dazn interviewer commend his Italian as players swapped shirts and fans began to make their way to the exits. “You’re a little like Zlatan [Ibrahimovic]: you give orders, you encourage, you motivate your teammates,” he said, his brows raising. “Who’s going to play now that he’s back?”
It was an unusual line of inquiry on a night when Giroud had altered the course of Serie A’s title battle once again, scoring the goal that gave Milan victory over Napoli, just as his two goals had buried Inter a month before. “I don’t want to think about who’s going to play,” he said, blowing out his cheeks and shrugging. My role as a big brother to the young players is also part of my responsibilities.”
What more could you expect of your athletic sibling than Giroud’s performance on Sunday? Even after Kalidou Koulibaly’s stud had cut a nasty gouge into his left shin, he led from the front for 68 minutes, putting himself into battles. He appeared exhausted by halftime, laying flat on the ground while the rest of the players made their way to the tunnel. Despite this, he would determine the game after the break
After the ball was blocked twice at a free-kick, Giroud stuck out a boot to redirect Davide Calabria’s shot inside the left-hand upright. It looked like a lucky deflection at first. Repeated viewings revealed that this was not the case. Giroud’s half-beat move into the space behind Koulibaly had set him up to be decisive on any ball that landed in the middle of the area
In this match, more remarkable goals have been scored. The idea of two squads competing for the Scudetto had brought back memories of Maradona’s brilliance clashing with Arrigo Sacchi’s first Milan side in 1988. Marco van Basten clinched a 3-2 triumph for the Rossoneri after a stunning run from Ruud Gullit in their match in May, and it remains one of the most renowned games in Italian football history
Apart from the likenesses that the club has been putting on its excessively lengthy line of imitation shirts, there is no Maradona in today’s Napoli. It’s difficult to fathom a Milan club that finished last in its Champions League group winning Europe twice in the next two years, but that’s exactly what Sacchi’s team did
Nonetheless, for many reasons, this has been one of the most exciting championship races. Napoli and Milan were in top place at the start of the weekend level. Inter had already beaten Salernitana by the time they took off, putting them ahead of them. On the back of a 14-game unbeaten streak, even Juventus had closed to within four points.
Luciano Spalletti, Napoli’s manager, emphasized the significance of the moment, saying that his team was at a fork in the road, with the option of becoming “immortal” or being forgotten forever. The Partenopei have never been Italian champions before or after Maradona.
For a side that finished second with a club-record 91 points under Maurizio Sarri in 2018, it seems like ‘now or never.’ In February, Lorenzo Insigne passed Diego Maradona in the club’s scoring charts, but he will leave in June to join Toronto FC. Dries Mertens, at 34, would prefer to stay longer, but his contract has not been extended beyond this summer
Napoli has also brought in new talent in the intervening seasons, and players like Fabián Ruiz and club-record acquisition Victor Osimhen can help the team to a bright future. Nonetheless, their situation differs from Milan’s, which is three years into a revitalization initiative led by Stefano Pioli. His pre-game remarks were completely different, downplaying the importance of any particular game and emphasizing the necessity of overall advancement
That framing may have aided his squad by lessening any pressure they may have felt. Or maybe he just figured out the appropriate strategy. Pioli switched from his typical 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3, allowing Milan to go man-for-man in the midfield, with Franck Kessié and Ismael Bennacer pushing high on Fabián Ruiz and Stanislav Lobotka, while Sandro Tonali sat deeper to cut off the supply to Piotr Zielinski in the No 10 position
The visitors had more possession of the ball, but their aggression shifted their center of gravity backward, away from the areas where they prefer to play. The result was the first half with minimal chances for both teams, however, Bennacer was knocked to the ground by Kalidou Koulibaly, while Osimhen’s heel was booted by Fikayo Tomori.
Either choice may have been made, but neither was made. Giroud, on the other hand, was left to break the deadlock in the 47th minute. As Napoli sought an equalizer, the game opened up, giving Milan opportunities to attack from behind. The visitors came the closest to scoring again, with Alexis Saelemaekers’ clear through in injury time being blocked by David Ospina
It ended 1-0, which was a historic outcome. This was Napoli’s first loss in 2022 and Pioli’s first win over Spalletti in 12 attempts. He had downplayed that storyline before the game, maintaining that it will “come sooner or later.” In answer, Spalletti joked, “I’d rather later.”
This night, above all, belonged to Giroud. Milan’s entire title bid, perhaps. Even though the Frenchman has only scored eight Serie A goals, three of them have been enough to win head-to-head matches against direct Scudetto opponents Inter and Napoli in the last month. In January, he scored the opening goal in a win over Roma and twice in the Coppa Italia quarter-final against Lazio
He has failed to break the rumored curse of Milan’s No 9 shirt, as no player has reached double figures in Serie A wearing that number since Pippo Inzaghi. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that he has had a significant impact on his team’s season.
Quick Reference Guide (Serie A results)
Pioli recalled his first interaction with Giroud, a video conversation last summer in which he said he was soon convinced of the importance that adding a World Cup and Champions League winner to his club could bring at full-time on Sunday. “It’s critical to have guys with personality and charisma,” he remarked. “Especially for a youthful group like ours,” says the narrator
When you’re attempting to teach kids how to carry themselves and do their tasks, having a role model nearby can help. The best part about having a big brother, however, is when they can merely perform the things that you couldn’t accomplish on your own