It has been six years since any team other than Juventus lifted the Serie A title. However, if fans of Italian football believed in fairytales, they would all be rooting for Napoli to win the title this season, for that would be nothing short of a fairytale.
The team from Naples has continued to defy expectations from the beginning of the 2017/18 season and have steadily been accruing impressive wins. Maurizio Sarri's men have been top for all but five of the 23 gameweeks this season, an impressive feat. Their performances have seen them showered with plaudits, with Pep Guardiola calling them "one of the best teams he had faced in professional football" after their Champions League encounters earlier this season.
A team built on camaraderie, intricate passing, incessant running and work ethic, the Partenopei play some of the most beautiful football in Europe and have now coupled that with a steely determination and strong defence to see opponents off. Sarri has worked with essentially the same Napoli squad that played under Rafa Benitez, but has added his touch of dynamism and fortitude.
Much like how Diego Simeone has kept expectations low at Atletico Madrid to help fend off the pressure of competing against Barcelona and Real Madrid, the banker-turned-coach, Sarri, has always emphasised the importance of understanding what Napoli are up against, in terms of Juventus' economic pull and stature. In just over two-and-a-half seasons at the club, the passionate, chain-smoking Neapolitan has taken the team to a second and a third place finish by altering their style of play and making them one of the most cultured teams in Europe.
The cantankerous, tracksuit wearing Sarri prowls the sidelines with great passion, egging his team on, always looking to provide them with insights that could help the team. With just over three years of experience coaching in the top division, the 59-year-old's achievements with Napoli are a testament to this footballing philosophy and man management.
Plucked from Empoli by Napoli after having taken them to Serie A safety in his first season in the Serie A, Sarri was seen as a trailblazer of a coach by the club's outspoken president, Aurelio de Laurentiis, who could take his team into the future. Sarri took the team's reactive 4-2-3-1 and changed it into a fluid 4-3-3, bringing in midfielder Allan and right-back Elseid Hysaj.
They rely on strong running from their full-backs, Faouzi Ghoulam (Mario Rui in the injury-enforced absence of Ghoulam) and Hysaj, while the creative onus falls on captain Marek Hamsik. Jorginho and Allan are adept at tracking the opposition's runners and control the midfield very well, with the former's impressive passing range helping spread the ball while the latter links up with Hysaj and Jose Callejon on the right.
The tandem of Lorenzo Insigne and Hamsik on the left side provides the necessary flair and thrust to the team's attacks, with the duo dovetailing beautifully with the left-back to help find mismatches and overload the box. Callejon's selfless running helps drag defenders away and gets Hysaj or Allan open frequently.
A team not endowed with great financial riches, Napoli pride themselves on their ability to outfight and outlast opponents, especially at home, where their rabid support helps them pummel the opposition into submission. They have benefited from the largesse of Juventus, whose purchase of Gonzalo Higuain, helped fill the Partenopei's coffers and allowed them to add a couple of players to their team to strengthen squad depth.
Sarri's ability to innovate and adapt helped Napoli thrive after the loss of striker Arkadiusz Milik to injury last season. The coach moved Dries Mertens to the false nine position and the Belgian has thrived ever since, scoring 34 goals last season in all competitions and has registered 18 this season. Mertens' ability to run the channels and stretch defenses, apart from finishing calmly, has made them an offensive juggernaut.
Defensive strength key to title challenge
Despite all their brilliance in attack, it is their resolute defence and ability to grind out results that has seen them rise to the top this season. After scoring 99 goals in 2017 to be the best attacking outfit in the league in the calendar year, they currently hold the best defensive record in Serie A this season, having conceded only 14 goals in 23 matches.
Kalidou Koulybaly and Raul Albiol have formed a strong partnership in defence, with the latter forgetting his time on the Real Madrid bench to revitalise his career at the Stadio San Paolo. Pepe Reina has been a vital presence in goal, communicating well and starting attacks with his ability to pass the ball out from the back.
The only thing that might form a potential hurdle to Napoli lifting only their third Scudetto in club history might be their thin squad and with the returns of Ghoulam and Milik from long-term injuries still some time away, Sarri would be hoping to continue his team's good run of form without losing any more important players.
Serie A title perfect way to complete revival after suffering bankruptcy
Hamsik has led the team admirably, replacing club legend Diego Maradona as the club's leading goalscorer. His loyalty to the club amidst overtures from top clubs across Europe has brought him closer to the fans and they see him as one of them.
What is clear though is the love the team's passionate fans have for their manager and how he is crucial to them winning the Serie A title for the first time since 1990. From being the lowest-paid manager in Serie A during his time with Empoli to one of the most in-demand managers in Europe, with Chelsea reportedly looking at him as a potential replacement if Antonio Conte is sacked, retaining Sarri is crucial for Napoli
The club need him to continue their resurgence and journey back to the top after suffering the ignominy of bankruptcy and losing their name in 2005, and winning the Serie A title would be just rewards for president De Laurentiis, the man who breathed life back into the club, literally and figuratively.
Napoli have suffered only one defeat in the 2017/18 Serie A season so far, to their closest rivals, Juventus, who won 1-0 in an incredibly tense encounter earlier in the season. Despite their one-point lead at the top, the Naples outfit would have to ensure they defeat the Old Lady in their second meeting later this season as that would be a huge step forward on their journey to the league title. Though that sounds like a lot of pressure, most of the pressure is on six-time defending champions Juventus, because as Maurizio Sarri said, "The surprising thing is that Napoli are up there, not Juventus. We are doing better than I expected, than the club expected, so there is zero pressure."
Lowering expectations worked like a charm for Simeone as he led Atletico Madrid to the La Liga title in 2013/14, pipping Barcelona to the crown. The city of Naples would be praying that it does the trick for Maurizio Sarri's Napoli as well.
Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 21:07 PM