Last week, Mauricio Pochettino suggested Napoli play the most beautiful football in Europe. Pep Guardiola said likewise a couple of months ago as Manchester City prepared for their Champions League clashes with the Partenopei.
The great Arrigo Sacchi is also a big fan of the Neapolitans and their coach Maurizio Sarri. “Sarri is a hero. He makes the most of what he has got,” said the man who managed AC Milan to European dominance in the late 1980s.
His team aren’t very powerful physically or experienced, but they move beautifully as a unit. His team play better football than the Napoli sides which won the titles.
High praise indeed. But for a club, a city and a manager chasing a first Serie A title since 1990, it will count for very little if Napoli fall short.
Pep’s kind words made people sit up and pay attention before Christmas – but doubtless Sarri and co would have preferred not to lose both games to the English club. And what consolation would Sacchi’s words offer if Napoli fail to emulate the feats of the Maradona inspired title winners of 28 years ago?
Courage and concentration, and not just lovely football, are what Napoli need if they are prevent Juventus from claiming an unprecedented seventh Serie A title in a row. We know they can play, but do they have the nerve?
Up until Saturday night, there had been plenty this season to suggest they do. After all, Napoli had come into their meeting with fifth placed Roma having won their last ten Serie A fixtures. Indeed, they hadn’t lost since the first week of December – a 1-0 home defeat to champions Juventus.
They followed up what had been a disappointing display that night with a goalless draw with Fiorentina. But then came the ten game winning streak, blowing away any notion that the wheels had fallen off their title bid.
Indeed, through that run, they had managed to keep Juventus at bay. Strikingly, they did so four weekends in a row when the Old Lady appeared to have the psychological advantage of playing first. But each time Juventus won, Sarri’s men responded in kind.
That pattern looked like it would be repeated on Saturday evening when Lorenzo Insigne put Napoli into an early lead at the Stadio San Paolo, with the league leaders having seen Juventus eke out a narrow 1-0 win away to third placed Lazio an hour earlier. But it was not to be.
Roma, perhaps inspired by the defeat of their neighbours at the Olympic Stadium, shook off their recent poor form, nullifying Sarri’s charges expertly and boosting their own hopes of Champions League qualification.
The 4-2 victory was well deserved. Eusebio Di Francesco’s Roma simply didn’t allow Napoli play their normal game, setting their defensive line about half way between the 18-yard box and the half way line and working diligently and intelligently in midfield to block the home side’s desired vertical passing lanes.
With little room in midfield and little space in behind, Napoli just couldn’t find their rhythm.
Moreover, they struggled to cope with Roma’s physicality. And as the home side’s efforts became increasingly desperate, Roma’s size and aerial prowess became increasingly influential as they swatted away Napoli’s crosses and attempts to find a way over the top.
“His team aren’t very powerful physically or experienced,” said Sacchi – apocryphal words given Saturday night’s events.
So what now? Much depends on how Napoli respond. They lead Juventus, who recorded their own tenth win on the trot just as Napoli’s ten game winning run came to an end, by a single point. But will the weekend’s results have damaged them mentally?
The champions, whose game last weekend with Atalanta had been postponed, now have a game in hand. And they are in ominous form – conceding just once in the last their last 13 Serie A games.
They’ve trailed Napoli by a single point since mid-December, waiting for a slip. And now it has come.
Will Saturday night’s results prove decisive? Those who want to see Juve’s dominance over Serie A broken and for Sarri’s men be the ones to do it must hope not. But Juventus have the squad depth, the quality, the experience and perhaps most importantly the winning mentality – and that knowledge may weigh heavily on Sarri’s men in the run in.