A resounding win over Juventus at the weekend sees Napoli occupy second spot in Serie A, and Jonathan O’Shea poses the simple question – can they claim lo scudetto?
The quick and obvious riposte to the title question would be a firm “no”. After all, it’s not 1987 is it? And the likes of Maradona and Careca have long since hung up their magic-weaving boots. Yet, this season, Serie A has blossomed into a delightful democracy following years of Inter’s relentless dictatorship. Resurgent Napoli have been one of the main beneficiaries, and the club from the south coast are now within touching distance of the top spot.
A brilliant first half of the season for the Vesuviani left them firmly ensconced in the Champions League places, looking forward with optimism to a spring-time dog-fight with illustrious rivals such as Milan, Inter, Roma, Lazio and Juventus. After the brief Serie A mid-winter break, Napoli faced a daunting return to action: a trip to San Siro to face an Inter side finally rid of Rafa, followed three days later by a visit from the Old Lady of Turin.
Inter, instantly revitalised by new boss Leonardo, held the upper hand on the first day of term (winning 3-1 thanks to an unlikely Thiago Motta double), and doubts resurfaced that Napoli were capable of mixing it toe-to-toe with the big boys. Juve’s visit to San Paolo on Sunday evening, however, proved that the old order on the peninsula is under serious threat.
Though the game was a near-even contest, the combination of a flaky Juventus defence and Napoli’s stellar attacking prowess served to throw up a comprehensive 3-0 win for the hosts; the game effectively settled by the completion of Edinson Cavani’s hat-trick just minutes after half-time. The nature of Cavani’s goals perfectly illustrated the many strengths of the current Partenopei set-up.
Both of the Uruguayan forward’s first-half strikes came courtesy of pinpoint crosses by in-form wingbacks; ex-Liverpool bench-botherer Andrea Dossena on the left, and the indefatigable Christian Maggio on the right. Coach Walter Mazzari’s enduring commitment to a 3-4-3/3-5-2 formation places great emphasis on the prowess of this duo (or their versatile deputy, Juan Zuniga.) The pair must cover acres of ground each game; offer a counter-attacking outlet; deny space and time to opposition wingers; not to mention sending a stream of high-quality balls into the box for free-scoring Cavani to feast upon. It’s a demanding brief, but the two Italian internationals execute it with precision.
The third, decisive goal was a treat; a sugary-sweet confection to savour again and again as numerous TV replays seemed to struggle to comprehend the intricacy of its build-up and the sheer audacity of its final execution. Wonderful interplay by the frequently phenomenal Ezequiel Lavezzi (the Carlos Tevez of Serie A?) and Slovak star Marek Hamsik found Cavani free and on-rushing at the back-post. The Neapolitans’ lethal no.7 added the final flourish with an impudent scorpion-kick finish from a tight angle.
El Matador, as the Napoli tifosi have taken to calling Cavani, has now rattled in goals in 16 Serie A games this season (taking him level with evergreen Toto Di Natale at the top of the capocanonniere charts) and serves as the focal point of the league’s most assiduous attacking triumvirate.
To compensate for the trio’s adventurous play and that of Dossena and Maggio (it’s no coincidence that, despite ostensibly being defenders, their shirt numbers are 8 and 11 respectively) the rest of the side must retain a certain level of obduracy. Teak-tough captain Paolo Cannavaro marshals the back-three, while Michele Pazienza and Walter Gargano do the leg-work in the engine room. In fact, Gargano knows his role inside-out, having been called upon by his country, alongside Cavani, to operate in a similar system during Uruguay’s slalom to the semis of last summer’s World Cup. Goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis has been something of a journeyman to date, but, having found his feet in Naples, now looks set to fulfil at least some of his early promise, which once saw the 33-year-old frequently linked with a move to Arsenal.
So, most of the ingredients are in place for a sustained title challenge. But, before you race off to the bookies with fiver-in-hand, there are a few mitigating factors. For instance, the drop-off in quality between the Napoli first XI and the rest of the squad is distinct. Subs such as Hassan Yebda and Bayern reject Jose Sosa are inadequate replacements should injury or suspension befall any of the team’s leading lights. With continued Europa League involvement to be considered too, is Mazzari’s bench really capable of stepping up to the plate when the going gets tough this spring?
There are also question marks about the team’s defensive capabilities, given their wingbacks’ commitment to attack. Adroit wingers, such as Juve’s Milos Krasic, can often exploit the areas they leave vacant; a weakness inherent in their anomalous tactical system. And there’s a question of nerve: when it’s come to the crunch this season, Napoli have failed against both of their Milanese title rivals. Many will argue, too, that Mazzari, for all his obvious virtues, has never before steered a side to the pinnacle of the Italian game. Yet neither have Messrs Allegri, Ranieri, Del Neri, Reja or Leonardo. With no Mourinho, Mancini, Capello or Lippi on the scene, the feeling is that lo scudetto is very much up for grabs.
Roma are surely too inconsistent – their mid-game implosion against Sampdoria last weekend proved as much; Juve are clearly still a work in progress; Lazio have gone off the boil since the re-start, but can still call upon signing-of-the-summer Hernanes. Inter are resurgent, but could have too much ground to make up.
It is most likely that Milan will come out on top of the pile come May. Their mercurial attacking trio of Pato-Robinho-Zlatan is now complemented by the even more capricious (but devilishly talented) Antonio Cassano, who has already conjured three crucial assists in just two late cameo appearances. The portents are, however, that a born-again Napoli side will snap at their heels all the way, until they finally push through the winning line.