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Maurizio Sarri repeatedly complained that the Bianconeri played before his side all too often, yet it was on a rare weekend when their fixture was later that the Turin giants would be handed a major boost as their rivals faltered.
Travelling to Sassuolo in mid-March, Napoli were already a staggering 46 points ahead of their opponents, yet fell behind to a well-taken goal from Matteo Politano when Federico Peluso’s header at a set piece rebounded off the post.
Pepe Reina and his defenders never reacted, while the 24-year-old simply volleyed the ball into the back of the net and – even though the Partenopei eventually found an equaliser – the draw saw Juve push ahead in first place with a win over AC Milan.
It was a lead they would never relinquish, and it is somewhat ironic that just two months before scoring that vital goal, Politano thought he would be playing for Sarri’s men in the second half of the campaign.
With Arkadiusz Milik sidelined due to injury and the squad looking increasingly thin, Napoli agreed a deal to sign him but then failed to complete the paperwork on time and the move collapsed.
“In my opinion, I was throwing money out of the window anyway” was club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis’ response, insisting that the Sassuolo winger was “neither as talented nor versatile as Simone Verdi.”
The latter – currently at Bologna – had turned down the chance to join Napoli but it would be Politano who had the last laugh, and over the rest of the season has proven his ability beyond all doubt.
Having narrowly avoided relegation however, Sassuolo were happy to have kept him this long with CEO Giovanni Carnevali telling Radio RAI that Politano “has allowed us to get out of some unpleasant situations.”
“Compared to last season, he’s grown a lot,” the club official continued, before admitting that he was “clearly ready” to join a big club.
With the Neroverdi yet to make a decision over the future of their coach and preparing for another difficult summer, he could decide now is the time to move on and this time ensure there is no clerical error.
Who Is Politano?
Born in the Italian capital, he joined the youth ranks of AS Roma at the age of ten, progressing steadily and helping the Giallorossi win the under-17 national title in 2010 before adding the under-19 championship the following year and the Coppa Italia 12 months later.
He would spend the 2012/13 campaign with Perugia in Italian football’s third tier, scoring eight times in 28 appearances and moving on again for a two-year stint with Pescara.
Politano registered 12 goals and eight assists in 77 Serie B games for the Delfini before joining Sassuolo in the summer of 2015.
After making his top flight debut against Napoli, his first goal would come in a 2-2 draw with Roma who at the time still owned the player, but they would sell him outright the following year as Politano – a back-up behind Domenico Berardi and Nicola Sansone – struggled for playing time.
The latter would eventually head to Villarreal and suddenly the Roman was catapulted into the starting XI.
Playing on the wing under Eusebio Di Francesco last season he made 37 appearances and weighed in with seven goals and six assists, but found himself in a more central role under Beppe Iachini this term and has struck ten times while laying on four more for his team-mates.
What are Politano’s main strengths?
Able to play anywhere across the front three, Politano is an extremely direct, positive and efficient player. He has hit the target with 55 percent of his shots this term, his ten league goals making him Sassuolo’s leading scorer despite both Berardi (four goals) and Alessandro Matri (three goals) averaging more scoring attempts per 90 minutes, 3.37 and 3.2 respectively, than the 24-year-old (3.08)
Excellent on the ball and with a wealth of tricks to help him take on his would-be marker, he also boasts a good understanding of when to do so and when to pass or cross instead, intelligently avoiding being dispossessed.
His positional sense is exceptional too, something he showcased in a 1-1 draw with AC Milan last month. Running off the shoulder of the last defender, he got between central defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Alessio Romagnoli – no mean feat this term – was too quick full-back Ricardo Rodriguez and fired beyond Gianluigi Donnarumma.
And a free kick against Inter demonstrated his set piece prowess, but also served to underline his ability to perform when it matters, adding that goal to strikes against Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina, as well as netting against Sampdoria in a match that ultimately secured Sassuolo’s top flight status.
What are Politano’s main weaknesses?
As picky as it might be, he needs to work on his passing. Individually he is clearly talented, but his distribution has constantly let him down, connecting with just 74.6 per cent of 28.15 passes attempted per 90.
Constantly trying to pick out a team-mate with an overly extravagant ball, his long-range efforts to switch the play routinely miss their intended target.
He has also struggled to get on the same wavelength as Berardi which has resulted in a high number of intercepted through balls.
How Much Would Matteo Politano Cost?
Under contract until 2022 but reportedly earning just €1.1 million per season, it would not be too difficult for any of the larger European clubs to prise him away from Sassuolo when the transfer window opens.
Indeed, the deal with Napoli back in January was agreed as a two-year loan with an obligation to buy set at €25million, although Gianluca Di Marzio last week noted that given his improvement, that figure may well be closer to €30 million in the summer.
Should Premier League Clubs Sign Politano?
While Politano clearly has room to improve and has yet to prove he can deliver every single week, the determined attitude shown after being forced to remain at Sassuolo bodes well for the future.
Many players would’ve shrunk if such a high profile move collapsed, but he simply went out and showed Napoli exactly what they missed out on in the best possible way, denting their title hopes and saving the Neroverdi from the drop.
“I firmly believe you create your own destiny, so I resumed giving my all to save Sassuolo from relegation and prove what I could do,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport recently.
“I don’t think I have matured completely, but over the last few months I have grown a great deal and this is my best season. Iachini changed my position, as from a winger I have now become a support striker, meaning I have more freedom to follow my instinct.”
He has done just that and adding such determined focus to his obvious footballing talent, Politano – while still having plenty to work on – has certainly emerged as a player the bigger clubs should be considering as they prepare to bolster their squads for next season.