ROME (AP) — For a team that lost its captain, all-time leading scorer and defensive stalwart in the offseason, Napoli has filled in the holes masterfully.
With every match, it seems, the southern club discovers a new weapon.
After midfielder Piotr Zieliński shined in the attention-getting 4-1 win over Liverpool in the Champions League, reserve striker Giacomo Raspadori scored his first goal for Napoli in the 89th minute of a 1-0 victory over Spezia in Serie A on Saturday.
“It’s difficult to play three days after a night like that against Liverpool, especially in the afternoon in this heat. But despite it all, we did everything we could to get the result,” Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti said.
“This is a show of character, patience and belief that sooner or later we’ll find the goal, but we can’t always afford to be in these situations and they were costly last season.”
The last-gasp win at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona moved unbeaten Napoli atop the Italian league standings, ahead of defending champion AC Milan on goal differential.
Ten-man Milan won 2-1 at Sampdoria but had Rafael Leão, its most impressive attacking player this season, sent off — meaning he’ll miss next weekend’s clash with Napoli.
Napoli and Milan are one point ahead of Atalanta, which can reclaim the lead when it hosts promoted Cremonese on Sunday.
Inter Milan moved up to fourth, two points back, with a 1-0 win over Torino.
Napoli is chasing its first league title since Maradona led the club to its only two Serie A championships in 1987 and 1990.
Raspadori, the 22-year-old loaned from Sassuolo, started in the place of injured Victor Osimhen and Spalletti kept him on to the end despite substituting most of his other attacking players.
Spalletti’s decision paid off when Raspadori put himself in position to redirect a cross from Hirving Lozano and fire inside the back post.
“These are all starting points for me,” Raspadori said. “I had missed two chances but I was able to remain lucid.”
It was just what Napoli had in mind when it agreed to the loan deal, which requires the club to purchase Raspadori’s full rights at the end of the season for 30 million euros ($30 million).
What’s more is that Raspadori became Napoli’s eighth different scorer in Serie A this season, tied for the most in the league with Inter Milan.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the 21-year-old Georgia winger who has already scored four goals and was named Serie A’s player of the month for August, showed off his skills again on the left flank when he dribbled through the legs of two defenders on the same play in the first half.
A few minutes later, “Kvara” was at it again with more dizzying dribbling moves to shake off his markers. His shot this time was a bit more precise but Spezia goalkeeper Bartłomiej Drągowski smothered his effort in front of the near post.
Zieliński came on as a second-half substitute and made an immediate impact, producing a long-range shot that Poland teammate Drągowski had to palm over the crossbar.
Spezia also threatened on occasion and center back Amir Rrahmani had to clear a shot off the line amid chaos within Napoli’s defense.
In all, Napoli is doing well to move on after former captain Lorenzo Insigne left for Toronto FC, record scorer Dries Mertens went to Galatasaray and defender Kalidou Koulibaly joined Chelsea.
South Korea center back Kim Min-jae, Koulibaly’s replacement, was rested after he too has made a big impact.
“There’s a great atmosphere within the team. Everyone is very welcoming, which is important for someone shy like me joining a squad like this,” Raspadori said.
Spalletti was sent off with his second yellow card amid scuffles after Raspadori’s goal, which also resulted in a red card for Spezia’s goalkeepers coach.
Up next for Napoli is a visit to Rangers in the Champions League on Tuesday. Then Spalletti should be suspended for next weekend’s clash with Milan.
Olivier Giroud converted a penalty midway through the second half to win it for Milan after Leão was sent off and Filip Đuričić had equalized for Sampdoria.
Junior Messias put Milan ahead six minutes in on a counterattack that started with Leão stripping the ball from Sampdoria near midfield and ended with Leão setting up Messias.
Leão picked up his second yellow card early in the second half for a dangerous overhead kick.
Đuričić then connected on a header after being left unmarked by Milan’s defense.
Milan was gifted a penalty with a handball and Giroud pounded the spot kick into the top corner.
Inter rebounded from consecutive losses — in the Milan derby and at home against Bayern Munich — with an 89th-minute winner from Marcelo Brozović.
It was a textbook goal as Nicolò Barella picked out Brozović by the far post and the Croatia midfielder darted past the defense to flick it in.
Torino dropped to seventh, four points behind Napoli.