Can Sarri Scudetto success see return to Napoli golden days?
Holly Thackeray | January 29, 2016
Classic Partenopei parallels
Naples is known around the world for a few things in particular; a port providing fresh seafood, the hub of the southern Italian economy, unconventional road rules, pizza and, of course, some of the most fanatic and passionate fans in football.
The Little Donkeys support have long been starved of the success required to remain a proud part of the ‘Seven Sisters’, the collection of elite Italian clubs which have dominated the peninsula for decades, including AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Lazio, Roma and Fiorentina, with Napoli taking troubled Parma’s original place.
Yet, the Partenopei now stand on the precipice of emulating their previous greatest-ever achievement, lifting two Scudetti between 1987 and 1990, an era which is synonymous with the star of Diego Maradona, when the iconic and inspirational Argentine shone brightest in sky blue club colours.
In that side, Maradona’s magic was backed by silk and steel from the likes of Ciro Ferrara and Salvatore Bagni, acting as a catalyst for the Campania club to become the first-ever mainland southern Italian side to win Serie A.
Now, 26 years on from that last league trophy, Napoli are two points clear of current holders Juve atop the Italian top flight table, having remained at the summit across the crucial midway point at Christmas.
To boot, there are also some striking similarities between this team, under instruction from former Empoli tactician Maurizio Sarri and the champagne vintage featuring that infamous (at least in England) Argentine.
It was once hoped another La Albiceleste star in Ezequiel Lavezzi would be the one to pick up Marandona’s mantle and inspire the Naples side back to significant silverware success in support of Uruguay hitman Edinson Cavani, though it never quite panned out, with the pair both now across the continent at PSG.
Instead, another of Argentina’s leading men arrived and, just like Maradona in his time, hitman Higuain was a record signing. So far, particularly this season, he has been repaying his pricetag with aplomb and, though he may not possess the imperious skill of his predecessor, the striker’s deadly nose for goal has Napoli scaling modern day heights.
Sarri the “right man” after all?
Lauded for bringing the best out of former Real Madrid forward Higuain, perhaps more for important performances than the goals which have always flowed for the frontman, Sarri has won over his striker, and eventually, Maradona himself.
Apparent Premier League and Bundesliga target Higuain may not inspire the affection which caused fans to flood the streets of Naples, and hang out of buildings, just to catch a glimpse of their chosen one, but Sarri recently stated he believes the Argentine to be the best in the business.
Sarri told press: “Higuain is becoming what I always thought he should be – in other words, the best striker in Europe and perhaps the world.
“[He] is like a dog, devouring any chance he gets. I would not exchange him for anyone, not even [Robert] Lewandowski.”
The ex-Empoli tactician later continued: “Higuain to win the Golden Ball? It is an award given by journalists. If it was given by the coaches then he would certainly have more of a chance.”
The Serie A top scorer, who has hit 21 of Napoli’s 45 league strikes, has repaid those comments with his own praise, but most vitally in game-changing moments; recently opening versus Sampdoria and notching the winner as the Little Donkey’s rallied back from 1-0 down to defeat Sassuolo.
Maradona, like most, may have pondered that Sarri was perhaps “not the right man for a winning Napoli”, when the surprise Rafa Benitez replacement was announced. Yet, half-way through the season, he certainly looks as though he is the perfect fit.
Forced to back-track, World Cup winner Maradona recently stated: “Knowing that the city of Naples and my Neapolitan fans can enjoy such emotion makes me even more happy for them. Go on Napoli. Now I want us to win the league title.” Quite the turnaround. Such cohesiveness can happen, however, when a boyhood and Naples-born fan takes over the club he supports, and Sarri has never been shy about his allegiances.
Fighting spirit the difference from Sarri
Next up for Sarri is an emotional challenge, as he hosts ex-club Empoli at the Stadio San Paolo, where his guys have been beaten just once across all competitions this campaign.
The Naples men have just three defeats blotting their copybook this term, but it is that resilient home record which speaks of the work Sarri has done on his rearguard.
Lapses have occurred of late, but Napoli have leaked just 18 league goals in total, a stat which has seen Sarri held above former Partenopei boss Rafa Benitez. Despite respectable finishes, plus a Coppa Italia title, during his tenure, the Spaniard is not much missed down south, with Sarri touted as having not only tightened the defence and organisation, but simultaneously increased attacking potency.
The former banker has hardly done anything revolutionary in taking the leash off Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon, with skipper Marek Hamsik of the Mohawk hair also increasingly decisive when decked out in his captain’s armband. The common denominator, rather than any tactical tweak or even particular player (Higuain has, after all, always been prolific), though, is good old-fashioned team spirit.
A big criticism of Sarri before he had even stepped into the Sao Paolo dugout was a perceived lack of distinction on his CV, having been seen to have failed as a player and come late to the party as a coach, stewarding rather unremarkable clubs.
Instead, the Italian has proved himself a hard worker, reaping the rewards for his lower-league toils when he spurred Empoli to promotion before solidifying them as a sturdy Serie A side with plenty of flair. There was no silver spoon in Sarri’s path to the Napoli bench.
This can be seen in the graft and character from all corners of the club this campaign, with Sarri aiming to spread the praise, choosing to applaud Callejon’s recent equaliser over Higuain’s winning brace. Boss Sarri told press: “Higuain is a phenomenon, but today I want to congratulate Callejon who found the goal in a very important moment for us.”
San Paolo atmosphere enticing
A further example of this family atmosphere arrived through Sarri, as the Sassuolo victory was dedicated to absent defender/midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah, with a minute of silence dedicated to the Chelsea-owned defender’s mother.
“We want to dedicate this game to Chalobah, who lost his mother very young.
“In two-three hours we have experienced the death of a young mother and the birth of Kalidou Koulibaly’s son; a busy day from an emotional point of view. Nathaniel has little brothers and sisters and our thoughts are with him,” added Sarri.
Can this feeling of famiglia spur them to Scudetto success? Odds of 11/10 from Coral says it can, though Sarri himself is more cautious.
“There’s no point looking at the table now as there’s a long way to go. We are happy with what we are doing,” he said recently, though fans are surely already whipped to a frenzy.
A recent Coppa Italia ousting by Inter illustrated Napoli are far from untouchable, though in a tight league race with so many credible competitors, their record in big games (league defeats of AC, Juve, Fiorentina and Inter, a draw with Roma) under their new boss could be what tilts this title.
There is still a way to go, and Europa League distractions to boot, though Serie A (and its top three spots guaranteeing Champions League football) will surely be prioritised if balls are to be juggled. Game on.