Maurizio Sarri, with his unassuming, coffee-sipping, zealous sideline watching demeanour, is scarcely a figure guilty of flattering his players.
The Italian had been forced to quash talk of a first domestic title in Naples since the heady days of Diego Maradona when his side dispatched four past Diego Lopez at the San Siro and, after smashing five past FC Midtjylland at the San Paolo in Europa League action, he was again obliged to subdue talk of an assault on Europe’s second-tier prize.
He would, though, have been forgiven for citing the obvious: the Partenopei have dispatched sixteen goals past their three Group D competitors and, having garnered maximum points from their four European fixtures, have netted more goals than any other side in the competition.
Athletic Bilbao – accompanied by the German heavyweights of Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04 – remain in hot pursuit but it is also worth noting that the Italian’s have, in addition to their unassailable goal tally, leaked the fewest number of goals (one).
Sarri, as he is perhaps coerced into doing, holds the two competitions in the same high regard and it is striking that the ex-Empoli coach has fielded a largely second-string squad on the continental front while maintaining desired results both domestically and outwith the confines of the peninsula.
Other managers, namely Sarri’s predecessor, Rafa Benitez, were chastised for showing such apparent disregard towards either competition. But, pertinent to this discussion, results in Serie A conspicuously flatlined towards the latter end of the campaign under the Spaniard’s stewardship.
Many, quite rightly, will highlight the strength of opponent in Group D. Club Brugge received a chastening experience in the Uefa Champions League qualifiers from Manchester United, FC Midtjylland are tasting European football for the very first time while Legia Warsaw currently sit eight points off the pace in the Ekstraklasa division.
Neither have posed much of a problem to Sarri’s side but it is also the case that Napoli have been swift to suppress their threat. FC Midtjylland were heavily reliant on their burly centre-forward, Paul Onuachu, to alleviate the unremitting pressure exerted by the Partenopei and, in truth, few sides have been able to cramp the influence of Lorenzo Insigne when the 24-year-old is brimming with confidence.
Both the Danish side and Brugge, who visited the San Paolo in September, found themselves 3-0 down heading into the interval.
Commendable, too, has been Sarri’s reluctance to overhaul the squad for European trips. He has not been afraid to rotate the squad but he has also been conscious of the extent that rotation is required.
Marek Hamsik, for instance, was retained for the visit of the Danish outfit alongside star centre-back, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Insigne, while Allan and Jose Callejon featured in the reverse trip last month.
Blending experience with so-called peripheral figures -and, more importantly, preserving the spine of the side – has helped foster the sense of continuity that maddeningly eluded Rafa Benitez last term.
Praise, however, must be heaped on the shoulders of Manolo Gabbiadini who has dealt with his reduction in domestic minutes with admirable sangfroid. The Italian forward has started just once in Serie A this campaign and has found appearances at a premium given Gonzalo Higuain’s fruitful run infront of goal.
But, when called upon on Thursday evenings, few can discount his importance. He followed his brace in Denmark with a brace in the return fixture and his predatory movement inside the 18-yard box seems to complement the ingenuity of Insigne stationed on the left. His clinicality in the penalty area has allowed Higuain to recharge for forthcoming Serie A action.
That will please Sarri immensely given that, however much significance is placed upon the second-half of the season, his focus should rest with trying to keep pace with the sides at the summit of league table.
Fewer indications of the task at hand will be more starker than the fact that Napoli have tasted defeat only once this season yet rest fourth, two points adrift of Fiorentina at the league’s apex, and level on points with third-placed Roma.
It already promises to be one of the most ambiguous title-races in years and, with Napoli likely to be rubbing shoulders with those at the top when May rolls around, they can ill-afford a post-Christmas tailspin.
Parallels can be drawn between Napoli’s blistering attacking displays this season and AS Roma’s no-holds barred football of autumn last term. Roma, too, were in the midst of a balancing act with European commitments and Scudetto aspirations and the Giallorossi’s morale-sapping defeat to Manchester City in mid-December seemed to mark a sharp downturn in fortune.
Roma stuttered once domestic action resumed after the winter hiatus and post-mortems of the Roman side’s campaign seemed to underline the lack of forward-planning from Rudi Garcia and co. during the first part of the season.
Sarri will hope that his side wield more mental fortitude than Garcia’s men but it is a precedent that the Italian should heed when he conducts his mid-season review during the winter break.
Naturally, the competitiveness of the Europa League will inflate when it houses those Champions League drop-outs in the knockout stages. Amongst those names may be Arsenal and, coincidentally, Roma, plus the competition will be weeded of its minnows and the number of sides who capsize in the face of adversity will, unfortunately for some, plummet.
Omar El Kaddouri, for instance, may see his minutes curtailed as Sarri shifts more emphasis towards the Europa League. Mirko Valdifiori – who has been dislodged by Jorginho in Sarri’s nominal XI – may become marginalised.
Sarri, though, has stretched his resources since arrival and his training-ground acumen – where he has deployed aerial drones to film patterns, movements and positioning – is beginning to bear fruit. No matter who steps in his players seem cognisant of their teammates movement and the attacking zest that has been a hallmark of their impeccable league form has seemed to suffuse throughout the squad.
The rewards for European triumph are lucrative: a place in next season’s Champions League group-stages. Sevilla, who recorded consecutive fifth-placed finishes while monopolising Uefa’s second-tier competition, can attest.
Unai Emery’s success was characterised by a unique attacking verve and the Rojiblancos trophy-laden years should serve as evidence that, with prudence and fortitude, compromise should be an afterthought.
That togetherness evaded Rafa Benitez during his tenure in the dugout and Sarri, whose impact in Naples has forced Diego Maradona to revise his premature sentiment, would do well to avoid a repeat of last season.