Not for the first time, Real Madrid were dominating proceedings at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Totally bossing possession and creating a plethora of chances, the Spanish giants appeared to be firmly in control as the first leg of their Champions League Last-16 clash with Napoli got underway last week.
Indeed, just 21 seconds into the match, Karim Benzema had wasted a golden opportunity to put the home side ahead and the French striker would be rueing that miss a few minutes later.
Standing just inside his own half, captain Marek Hamšík played the ball forwards to Lorenzo Insigne, his team-mate having cut in from the left flank with a run that split the opposition central defenders perfectly.
The 25-year-old noticed Kaylor Navas was too far off his line and immediately despatched a perfect curling effort that left the goalkeeper with no chance. It was an incredible goal, one which silenced Real’s usually vocal fan base and gave the 10,000 Neapolitans who managed to get tickets a reason to celebrate.
They did so not just because the goal was so good and not only because it came in such a high-stakes encounter with one of European football’s truly giant clubs, but because the player who had given them the lead was one of them. He was born in the Frattamaggiore area of Naples as the second of four sons, a family who struggled for money and who raised the boys in a small, cramped home.
That prompted the young Lorenzo to take a job in the local market in order to pay for his own clothes and one of the first purchases he made was a pair of Ronaldo's R9 boots, dreaming that he would one day follow in the footsteps of the great Brazilian striker. However, that was anything but a foregone conclusion as Insigne – who still stands just 5’ 4” (1.63 m) tall – was widely considered to be too small to make it in the professional ranks.
Inter Milan and Torino overlooked him on account of his size but he would enter Napoli's youth set-up at the age of 15 and soon started banging in goals for their Primavera (under-19) side.
An unsuccessful loan to Cavese followed, but he would subsequently undertake a similar spell with Zdenek Zeman's Foggia. Bagging 19 goals in Italy’s third tier during the 2010-11 campaign, his performances prompted the Czech coach to bring the young star with him to Serie B side Pescara the following season.
Joined there by Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile and current Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin, it would be Insigne who outshone them all. Scoring 18 goals he finished second to only team-mate Immobile in the race to be the division’s top scorer, but also laid on an impressive 14 assists as the Delfini comfortably finished top of the table.
Clearly too good to be showcasing his talent in the lower leagues, Napoli knew he was ready and their timing could not have been better. Ezequiel Lavezzi was sold to Paris Saint-Germain and immediately created the space for the youngster to finally represent his hometown club.
Over the last four-and-a-half seasons he has done so with aplomb, drawing comparisons to Antonio Cassano and Diego Maradona as his playing style echoes that of those street urchin heroes.
Yet, as much as fans of the Partenopei must hate it, Insigne admitted that his childhood hero was none other than Juventus icon Alessandro Del Piero. “I had his poster in my room as a kid and cannot wait to meet him in person,” the Napoli forward told Sky Italia last year. “He’s always been my idol.”
Like Del Piero did years earlier, he too has wowed the Bernabéu, but it is his performances in Serie A that have truly captured widespread attention. Insigne’s play has improved dramatically since Maurizio Sarri replaced Rafael Benitez in the summer of 2015, weighing in with 20 goals and 16 assists in the league alone under the Tuscan’s intuitive guidance.
Nominally positioned on the left wing of Napoli’s 4-3-3 formation, he interchanges roles with Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon, the trio confusing defences across the peninsula with their speed on the counter attack. Insigne dances past would-be markers with incredible skill, a sublime first touch and excellent dribbling skills, at ease either creating chances of scoring himself.
Much as Zeman did at Foggia and Pescara, Sarri seems to bring the best from Insigne, who has once again been linked with a move to Arsenal when the transfer window opens this summer. His current contract ends in June 2019 and pays him just €1.8million per season, with talks over an extension breaking down over the winter when Napoli reportedly offered an increase to €2.5 million.
According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, he was looking for almost double that figure, something Arsenal – who are believed to have sent scouts to watch him and full-back Faouzi Ghoulam repeatedly over the past month – could comfortably afford to do.
It would be difficult to imagine him moving on, but Napoli have proven they can survive after selling such star players as Edinson Cavani and Gonzalo Higuain, who have followed Lavezzi through the exit door.
Asked if the team can overcome their 3-1 loss to Real Madrid following a complete collapse after his own breathtaking goal, Insigne simply replied “Napoli will amaze you.” But time and again it has been the man in the No.24 shirt who has stunned supporters, and is likely to continue to do so wherever he plays in the future.