Whatever he does on Tuesday night – and he may well do quite a lot – Arsenal cannot claim that they were not warned about Lorenzo Insigne.
The little forward, the future of Napoli and maybe even of Italian football, has already been to the Emirates once this season, already faced Arsenal and has already shown them just how good he is. Insigne scored the first goal in Arsenal’s first home game this season, in the Emirates Cup two months ago.
Six minutes into that friendly, Gökhan Inler hit a long ball forward to Insigne, who darted inside Carl Jenkinson, and the full-back, desperately tracking back, could only head the ball up into the air. Insigne reacted faster than Jenkinson or goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and slid the ball into the far corner.
Bacary Sagna will play at right-back instead of Jenkinson tonight and Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, did promise yesterday that Sagna will “take care of” Insigne. But that might not be as easy as it sounds. The 22-year-old is a thrilling player, all energy and imagination, who provided the best moment of the first set of Champions League group games.
Napoli were 1-0 up at home to Borussia Dortmund in the second half. They won a free-kick 25 yards out, slightly to the right-hand side of the goal. Insigne curled the ball around the far side of the wall and into the top corner of the net. The Stadio San Paolo – the loudest ground around on a big European night – erupted in noise, partly because Insigne is already their hero.
There are few places in Europe where the team means more to the fans than in Naples, as Insigne knows as a Neapolitan and a Napoli fan himself. And, because of that, there is no current player – with the arguable exception of Marek Hamsik – who means more to those supporters than Insigne.
The street vendors of Naples will sell just as many bobble-head dolls or ceramic statuettes of Insigne as they do of Hamsik, or as they did of Ezequiel Lavezzi or Edinson Cavani before their big-money moves to Paris. Young fans mimic his distinctive haircut.
Insigne used to be one of them. In a sense he still is. There is a word in Naples – scugnizzo – meaning a boy, a bit cocky, cheeky and smart, who hangs around on the streets with his mates. Insigne is exactly that, which is why he is so loved. Paolo Cannavaro, veteran centre-back and Napoli captain, is another Neapolitan and popular for it.
Rafael Benitez, the Napoli coach, is cautious about building Insigne up too much in public but wrote in his column in The Independent last week that those qualities in Insigne remind him of what he saw in Liverpool. “He is a real Naples street kid with all the passion I saw in the Scousers in Liverpool, a city which shares many fine things with my new one.”
Certainly, Insigne plays with all of the strength, wit and fearlessness of an authentic Scouse street footballer. It should not be much of a surprise that he is compared to Wayne Rooney.
His own hero, though, is slightly closer to home. “His idol is Alessandro Del Piero,” said Italian football writer James Horncastle. “And he wants to be Napoli’s answer to him.”
Like Del Piero, Insigne is a free-kick specialist who can play on the left-hand side of a front line. Benitez uses him on the left of his 4-2-3-1, where he can push his way inside and shoot with his right foot. It has been a very successful season so far for him, starting five of Napoli’s seven games, often at the expense of Dries Mertens, the Belgium midfielder from whom much was expected after his €9.5m (£8m) move from PSV Eindhoven this summer. On Saturday Insigne made both of Goran Pandev’s goals with clever passes in Napoli’s 2-0 win at Genoa which moved them briefly top of Serie A. Now they are just two points behind early leaders Roma.
Insigne’s has been a faster rise than most. He made his debut as a teenager in 2010 before learning the game in loan spells at Cavese, Foggia and Pescara. That third one, in 2011-12, was a triumph, as Pescara, under brilliant Czech coach Zdenek Zeman, won Serie B. Insigne scored 18 goals and forced Napoli’s coach, Walter Mazzarri, to consider him ready for his first team.
Last season was a breakthrough, with Insigne starting 20 games and scoring five goals, and he was selected for Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side for the first time. Despite that elevation, this summer – before the Emirates Cup – he went to the European Under-21 Championship, where he was a key part of the Italy side who lost the final 4-2 to Spain. Italy’s first game was against England on 5 June, which Insigne settled with 11 minutes left.
This was a free-kick from closer in, almost on the penalty area, to the left of goal. But Insigne struck it with his right foot, curling the ball over the wall and back into the near top corner, far beyond the dive of goalkeeper Jack Butland.
As with any young man made that famous that quickly, there is still polishing to be done. Benitez also wrote that Insigne “can still get focus and find the calm place in his mind”. But raw brilliance, skill and nerve are more than exciting enough for now. Arsenal should know what to expect.
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