Ahead of this weekend’s visit of Hellas Verona, it remains to be seen whether Napoli will have to, once again, do without the services of attacking talisman Victor Osimhen.
The Nigeria international has not been seen in Azzurri colours since the 3-0 win over Bologna, a contraction of his gastrocnemius muscle keeping him out of action for victories over Salernitana and Legia Warsaw.
Both triumphs were crucial in keeping Napoli in good stead both domestically and in Europe, and while they were great shows of character, manager Luciano Spalletti will be under no illusions – the sooner he can get Osimhen back into the starting line-up, the better for his team’s prospects.
The former Roma and Inter boss will of course hope that time is the ultimate healer of wounds, and that in more ways than one. It will be recalled that the aforementioned win over Bologna was marred somewhat by the controversy surrounding Napoli’s third: specifically, the decision by Lorenzo Insigne to take the penalty, his second of the night, rather than allow Osimhen do the honours.
The 22-year-old did not take kindly to being turned down, and was pictured walking away with a sulk, rather than joining in the celebrations with the rest of the team after Insigne had dispatched the spot kick.
This set tongues wagging all over the internet, and in a way Osimhen’s injury served to put a pin in all the speculation. Nevertheless, it is a far more nuanced discussion than most are willing to acknowledge, and there is no one correct answer.
For those who fault Insigne for declining the request, it is important to note that the hierarchy for penalty-taking is something that was decided beforehand. Not only is the 30-year-old Neapolitan the designated kicker from 12 yards, he is also the captain of the side, the one on whose shoulders the responsibility of leading the team rests, as well as the manager’s most trusted lieutenant. Giving up that role is, therefore, entirely his prerogative, and his decision-making – however stodgy – should always be respected. Through this lens, Osimhen had no grounds for throwing a strop.
However, the other side of the argument has some merit too.
Strikers are a quite unique breed, much like goalkeepers; creatures of habit and of confidence, and for them goals are not merely a suggestion. They are imperatives, without which a performance can seem inchoate, and without which it is surprisingly easy to slip into a funk.
The Bologna showing, taken in its entirety, was probably Osimhen’s most complete and menacing of the league season. The Napoli number 9 was at the heart of everything good his side did in attack, showcasing close control and great imagination in a lot of his link-up play, providing an outlet and presence inside the penalty area, and pressing intelligently going backwards. And yet, for a striker, it lacked the ultimate seal: a goal to crown all of that effort.
Viewed that way, as well as with the knowledge that his previous match – against Roma – had witnessed similarly unrewarded toil, it is a little easier to understand why Osimhen seemed so desperate to take the second penalty, and why he was miffed at being rebuffed. That naked self-interest is, in the words of Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, “necessary for doing the job (of a striker) right.”
It could also prove crucial if Napoli are to finally go all the way and win their first Scudetto in over three decades.
Going back seven seasons in Serie A, every league champion has had at least one player shouldering at least 25 percent of the team’s goalscoring burden. Even last season’s Inter, the highest-scoring winners in that time period, had Romelu Lukaku’s 24 goals accounting for 27 percent of their total haul of 89. Contrary to the popular idea that spreading goals is the way to title success, it has often proved necessary – in Italy at least – to have one reliable bomber leading the team into battle.
At the moment, Osimhen’s tally of five makes up 21 percent of Napoli’s goals, and while the sample size remains small still, it would not do for the Azzurri to allow his goal ratio flag. As such, while it might be a selfish request on the surface of it, it might be in the interest of the collective to allow the Nigerian, who is 5 from 6 for penalties in his professional career to, every now and again, step up to the spot.