Serie A November Review: Resurgent Napoli Sound Scudetto Alarm
As the teams occupying Serie A’s top positions continue to trade places on a weekly basis, it is now Maurizio Sarri’s resurgent Napoli who lead the way. After wins over Udinese and Hellas Verona, the Partenopei ended November by holding off a late fight-back from 10-man Inter in a dramatic top-of-the-table clash. They now lead Roberto Mancini’s Nerazzurri by a point, with Fiorentina only another point behind, and an off-colour Roma still just two further back. These margins may be tight, but Napoli’s status as the most fluid, in-form team in Italy is far clearer.
Rarely one of Italy’s more fancied sides, Napoli have not won the Scudetto since Diego Maradona guided them to their second title in four seasons in 1990. If they were to emerge victorious this season there would be another inspirational Argentine attacker at the forefront of their success. With twelve goals from fourteen league appearances (including both strikes against Inter at the weekend), Gonzalo Higuain is currently among the most prolific strikers in Europe and looks almost unstoppable. It’s no one-man band up front for Napoli, either; Jose Callejon and the diminutive Lorenzo Insigne are providing goals and assists from the wings at will, while Manolo Gabbiadini and Dries Mertens offer remarkable strength off the bench.
None of these names are particularly new additions to the San Paolo, and credit is due to the coach who has got them functioning as such a cohesive offensive unit. Sarri, who spent much of his career in the Italian lower leagues, was greeted as something of an underwhelming appointment when he was poached from Empoli in the summer. Club President Aurelio De Laurentiis’s decision, however, already appears vindicated, as the Napoli currently ripping apart both Serie A and their Europa League group looks an entirely different beast to the one that collapsed out of the Champions League places to fifth at the back end of last season under Rafael Benitez. While rarely inspiring much affection, Benitez has earned himself the quiet respect of many football experts for his tactical nouse, but the start that Sarri has made has all but confirmed the widely-held suspicion that the Spaniard was not getting the best out of his players during his tenure. Having made an unconvincing start to life at Real Madrid, the steady flow of anti-Benitez sentiment that has leaked from the Napoli camp since his departure have provided persistent reminders of his perceived lack of man-management ability.
The approach made by Napoli to the summer transfer window also warrants a mention. Elsewhere in Italy, the mercato saw Juventus undertake a wholescale renovation in the middle of the park, while Inter spent an eye-watering amount of money on the thus-far unimpressive Geoffrey Kondogbia and Milan threw cash at the likes of Mauri, Kucka and Bertolacci. The alteration made to Napoli’s starting midfield, conversely, was small and surgical. For a meagre €11.5 million , De Laurentiis was able to lure 24-year-old Brazilian dynamo Allan from Udinese, acquiring a proven Serie A talent in the process. Alongside compatriot Jorginho and captain Marek Hamsik, Allan has added steel to what is close to the perfect middle ‘3’ for the 4-3-3 system, with each highly capable of contributing in attack and defence.
The sliver of doubt hanging over Napoli’s title credentials is one of mentality. Can a club so unaccustomed to fighting for the top prize handle the increased pressure involved? The extent to which Inter, who hit the post twice in stoppage time after Adem Ljaijic had made it 2-1, were let back into the game despite Yuto Nagatomo’s first half red card was a worrying sign. In the end, it was a result that Roberto Mancini was able to blame on the referee and the heroics of goalkeeper Pepe Reina (whose fingertips touched Joao Miranda’s header onto the upright with seconds to play), which should never have been the case.
The win stood, though, triggering wild scenes of celebration at the San Paolo, whose faithful have had to endure the humiliation of bankruptcy and Serie C1 as recently as 2006. After a trip to Bologna, next Sunday sees the Partenopei host Roma in a game which could hand the Neapolitans the proud record of having already beaten all five of their suggested title contenders. It should be noted that four of these games will have been played in Naples, but the 4-0 drubbing handed to Milan at the San Siro in October didn’t convey much insecurity away from home. If they beat Rudi Garcia’s stuttering Giallorossi, Napoli will surely have completed their transition from dark horses to Scudetto favourites.