Catching up with Arkadiusz Milik

All he needed was three shots. Perhaps unsurprisingly to Ajax fans, Napoli’s new striker Arkadiusz Milik made an immediate impact, scoring with only his third-ever attempt for the Gli Azzurri against Milan in August. He would go on to score another in a 4-2 victory over the Rossoneri that day – marking the start of his explosion onto the Italian football scene – already seemingly having justified his €32m fee.

The most expensive Polish player ever would go on to score another brace against Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League, and again in Serie A against Bologna, propelling Maurizio Sarri’s side to success on two fronts. This was exactly the remedy Napoli fans needed after losing star striker Gonzalo Higuain — who had plundered a record-breaking 36 goals in the previous campaign — to rivals Juventus in the summer transfer window.

Plaudits rolled in for the 22-year-old, statistics revealing that the 6’1” forward had netted with 36% of his shots, in comparison to 25% for Higuain during 2015/16. All the signs were positive for Milik, but then disaster struck.

Playing for Poland during an international break in early October, the star striker was substituted at half time. Early reports suggested that he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament on his left knee, and the worst fears were indeed confirmed in the hours that followed the match.

Milik broke down in tears during an interview broadcast by Poland’s official YouTube account, obviously aware that his superb start had ground to an abrupt halt. Napoli now suddenly found themselves without both Higuain and his replacement, and the Coach had to swiftly make some adjustments.

After unsuccessfully deploying now-Southampton forward Manolo Gabbiadini in the void that had been left up front, the Tuscan boss went for an all-attacking front three with spectacular results. With Belgian forward Dries Mertens being supported by former Real Madrid winger Jose Callejon and homegrown star Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli once again began to score freely.

Since then the Neapolitan side has put five goals past Cagliari and Torino on consecutive weeks, and scored an incredible seven away at Bologna at the beginning of February. After the absence of Milik, the style deployed by Sarri has been likened to that of a La Liga side, with Napoli involved in fewer aerial duels than any other Italian club this season.

A Champions League last 16 tie against Real Madrid in the Champions League knockout stages now looms, with an in-form Napoli are perhaps more confident than ever that they can upset the Spanish giants. But perhaps the Serie A side need a change of tack, as they are unlikely to match Los Merengues at their own game.

Enter stage left Arkadiusz Milik. After four months out, the striker was on the bench against Bologna and his return to fitness couldn’t have come at a better moment. After having scored six out of 21 Eredivisie goals with his head for Ajax last season, the Pole continued in the same vein with Napoli, three out of his seven early strikes also coming from headers.

“You need to keep proving yourself in football, keep proving you’re a good player,” Milik told back in September. “Even if you play badly once, that doesn’t mean you’re going to play badly three days later – it could be the best match of your life.”

With his words still ringing true five months later, the former Ajax man has it all to prove once again, and will be hoping for the performance of a lifetime against Real Madrid.