Victor Osimhen and the stuttering season indicative of Napoli’s title defence

Walter Mazzarri reintroduced himself to Victor Osimhen over the weekend.

They had met three months ago when Napoli brought the amicably garrulous Tuscan who had been their manager from 2009-13 back in a caretaker role following Rudi Garcia’s dismissal.

Mazzarri looked forward to working with the reigning Capocannoniere in Serie A. There was a time when he had a reputation in Italy for turning OK strikers into good ones (from Rolando Bianchi and Nicola Amoruso to Claudio Bellucci) and for taking Edinson Cavani from unfulfilled talent to one of the best centre-forwards of his generation.

“From the outside looking in, Cavani (and Osimhen) appear to have some similarities, it’s clear,” Mazzarri said at his unveiling. “I’ve only had a chance to talk to Victor for a couple of minutes, so I’ll only be able to tell you after coaching him.”

Today, Mazzarri has a slightly better idea than he did then. But not by much.

The truth is, irrespective of Osimhen’s participation in the recent Africa Cup of Nations, he has been less available than Mazzarri would have liked. “I don’t know what it was like for Garcia,” he said, “but (Osimhen) was injured when I was appointed.”

The Nigerian did not start Mazzarri’s first game, up in Bergamo on November 25. He could only play the final half-hour that day against Atalanta. When Osimhen emerged from the bench, his impact was decisive as he set up Eljif Elmas’ winner. “Thank goodness he’s coming back,” Mazzarri said. “We could really use him.”

He has kept repeating how much Napoli need Osimhen, to little or no avail.

A half against Real Madrid a few days later wasn’t enough to avoid a 4-2 Champions League defeat in the Bernabeu. The only games Osimhen started and finished under Mazzarri, against Inter and Juventus, ended in losses. His first goal for his new coach, the clincher in a 2-0 win at home to Braga, delivered qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Fleetingly, it felt like the old Napoli might be back. Osimhen scored and assisted Khvicha Kvaratskhelia against Cagliari a few days later.

But two months have passed since and that remains his most recent goal for the club. Osimhen was brought on at 0-0 in Napoli’s first Coppa Italia game, against Frosinone. It was Mazzarri’s way of bugling for a cavalry charge. But his horses turned up lame and the Serie A champions exited the competition at the first hurdle, suffering a 4-0 humiliation against a recently-promoted side.

Osimhen angrily tore off his protective face mask at full time.

Osimhen watches Frosinone celebrate (Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

When available this season, he has generally cut a frustrated figure.

Away to Bologna in September, he missed a penalty and could not hide his dissent when Garcia opted for a like-for-like substitution instead of going with two strikers with the game still goalless and there to be won.

In Rome, as Napoli’s penultimate game of 2023 drew to a close, his last act to date in their blue shirt was to needlessly trip Stephan El Shaarawy while on a booking. It was the 86th minute, Napoli were already down to 10 men but the game was not over. With his team only 1-0 behind, Osimhen might have rescued a point against Roma, considered direct rivals for Champions League qualification. Instead, he saw red and missed the subsequent 0-0 home draw against Monza through suspension as Napoli closed out the calendar year in a crisis of profound proportions.


Aurelio De Laurentiis, the owner, has held his hands up. He has listed his own mistakes. He should have fought harder to make Scudetto-winning coach Luciano Spalletti honour his contract instead of agreeing to let him leave. He should have fired replacement Garcia the minute his unveiling finished, after the Frenchman revealed he had not watched a single Napoli game last season. By the same token, his club’s social media team should not have disrespected and racially abused Osimhen with a couple of spectacularly ill-judged TikTok posts the weekend of that penalty miss against Bologna.

Threats of legal action from the player’s agent and the removal of all photos of Osimhen in Napoli apparel from his Instagram account swirled like the smoke from burning bridges. But Osimhen later wished to “make sure there is nothing wrong, regardless of what has happened.” He said “I cannot lie”, his relationship with De Laurentiis and the De Laurentiis family is “good”.

Some believe he has been overindulged. Osimhen was allowed to fly to Marrakech to receive the African Player of the Year award on the eve of the Champions League game against Braga which decided qualification for the knockout stages. Osimhen would point out it was his goal which secured victory in said match.

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Osimhen gets a red card against Roma (Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The new deal he signed in late December came as a surprise.

Osimhen rolled his contract on another year in return for a pay rise and a release clause reportedly set around €120million (£103m; $129m). He was all smiles with De Laurentiis as he put pen to paper and celebrated New Year by making it rain at a nightclub. In the end, the only cross words Osimhen had were for Kvaratskhelia’s agent Mamuka Jugeli, who was quoted in Italy saying that renewal was meaningless and that, in his opinion, the striker would move to Saudi Arabia in the summer.

Reading Jugeli’s interview while at a training camp with Nigeria in Abu Dhabi ahead of AFCON, Osimhen posted on Instagram: “Dumbf***. Keep my name out of your mouth.”

Osimhen has now been away for six weeks. Mazzarri hoped he would “come back motivated and with a mean streak”. But the way AFCON ended for him was heartbreaking. Nigeria made it to the final, only to lose 2-1 to a late goal for hosts Ivory Coast.

The way his tournament played out mirrored Osimhen’s recent travails in Serie A. He left Italy after Gameweek 18, with five non-penalty league goals from 13 appearances. In Ivory Coast, he scored once in seven matches.

As with Napoli, there were mitigating circumstances, such as Nigeria’s tactical pragmatism — it was one of their centre-backs, penalty-specialist William Troost-Ekong, rather than one of their centre-forwards who received the player of the tournament award, an indicator of Nigeria’s emphasis on defensive solidity.


Osimhen had the unglamorous task of running the channels, chasing down long balls and holding the ball up for his team-mates. He allowed Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman to shine, setting him up against Cameroon in the round of 16 and making the run that created the space for his goal in the quarter-final against Angola. A tight offside call denied Osimhen a goal in the semi-final against South Africa.

Still, the overwhelming impression was that of an underwhelming AFCON from the continent’s biggest star.

Osimhen did not return to Naples straight after last Sunday’s final, either. Nigeria’s proud president Bola Tinubu hosted the team at the Statehouse in Abuja, where he presented the players with the Member of the Order of the Niger, plus an apartment and plot of land each as a token of his gratitude.

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A crestfallen Osimhen as Nigeria lose the AFCON final (Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Back in Naples, fans wondered when Osimhen would be back. Saturday’s home game against Genoa was six days after the AFCON final. Reeling from another defeat, this time to AC Milan, his team needed him. But Osimhen’s return flight was delayed, which meant he missed the connection and did not land back in the city until Thursday afternoon.

Medical checks revealed the fatigue caused by starting every game at AFCON. His body was feeling the strain after playing in punishing conditions under tremendous pressure.

“According to him and the doctors, he’s at his lowest,” Mazzarri said, in explanation for not including Osimhen in the squad for the Genoa game. “He had some tightness. It wasn’t right to take a chance after AFCON and then lose him again for a couple of months.

“ He’s rested a bit since the end of the tournament. He’ll train tomorrow and we hope to have him ready for Barcelona (on Wednesday, in the home first leg of a Champions League last-16 tie). But his presence isn’t certain. I’ve practically never had him since I arrived.”

Osimhen was in the stands on Saturday, staring another Napoli defeat in the face, until, that is, January signing Cyril Ngonge, the player likeliest to take his place against Barcelona, scored a last-minute equaliser. It was Ngonge’s first goal since his move from Verona. “I can’t be happy,” Ngonge said. “I can’t celebrate.”

Under Curva A and Curva B at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, the Napoli players were whistled by the ultras at full time. Ninth in Serie A and 29 points off the pace they set last year, this is one of the worst title defences of all time. Napoli desperately need to flick a switch.

Last season, everyone in the team scored. Even when Osimhen was out, Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori picked up the slack. Raspadori’s goal against Juventus in Turin last April wasn’t the goal that clinched the Scudetto but it made it feel an inevitability. This season, no one scores. Napoli have finished seven of Mazzarri’s 12 league games goalless, which suggests the problem is structural rather than to do with the strikers.

On Sunday, the club were reflecting on his position, leading the Sky Italia pundit and five-time Champions League winner Alessandro Costacurta to joke: “Does De Laurentiis want to go in the dugout against Barcelona?”.

Francesco Calzona, a former Napoli assistant under Maurizio Sarri and Spalletti who is currently head coach of Slovakia’s Euro 2024-bound national team, has been lined up as a replacement for Mazzarri.

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Osimhen watches the game against Genoa from the stands (Ciro De Luca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Osimhen too needs to rediscover the form of last season. Otherwise, it will figure as an outlier.

In three and a half seasons at Napoli, only once has he scored 14 or more league goals, and only once (last season) has he been durable enough to start 30 or more of the 38 league games.

Becoming the first Capocannoniere from Africa was historic. But he was also the fourth player to top the scoring charts playing under Spalletti (the others were Francesco Totti, Edin Dzeko and Mauro Icardi) which raises the question: how much better did Spalletti’s football make Osimhen look?

It’s up to him to prove last season wasn’t a flash in the pan. While his name features on Paris Saint-Germain’s list to replace the departing Kylian Mbappe, might a team that already has Randal Kolo Muani and Goncalo Ramos consider a left-sided attacker, such as Milan’s Rafael Leao, a better use of their resources than another centre-forward?

In England, where Osimhen dreams of one day playing, the elite clubs in need of a striker will be curious to see how he finishes the season.

They know De Laurentiis is one of Europe’s toughest and most unflinching negotiators, and that £100million-plus buyout clause is likely to be the start and end point of any discussion. Right now, Osimhen doesn’t look worth that much.

A goalscoring run in the Champions League’s knockout phase would help.

But to do that, a player who missed last year’s quarter-final first leg and then practically half the group stage this season has to be available.


(Top photo: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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