This week, Napoli made history.
Their most recent victory proved to be record-breaking in itself and is one more step to a potentially historic season, if they can hold on to top spot and topple Juventus come May. Sunday’s 1-0 home result against SPAL was their ninth consecutive win, a new club record and further proof that this year’s squad is closer than ever to a first league title since 1990.
Naepolitan History Repeating Itself?
One man who believes Maurizio Sarri’s side can go all the way is Ottavio Bianchi, who was manager of Napoli in their first ever Scudetto in 1986-87. He told Corriere dello Sport:
“This could be their year, thanks to the great numbers Sarri’s team are putting up.
“It’s a pleasure to see his team in action, they play from memory. When one has the ball and the others move, it’s all another song.
“This year they’re playing to win the Scudetto and when you get that consistency the Scudetto is no longer a fantasy.”
Bianchi’s famous squad were led by a certain Diego Armando Maradona, club legend and world football icon. The Argentine, fuelled by passion (and definitely some other substances) was the key player in Napoli’s golden five-year period between the 1986-87 and 1989-90 seasons.
In those years the team delivered the only two league titles in their history, as well as a UEFA Cup, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana.
Nearly 30 years on, the most recent incarnation of the squad are probably the worthiest generation of players to break Juventus’ six-year stranglehold on Serie A. Instead of an irresistible little Argentinian, there is a squad rich in quality throughout.
The seductive, free-flowing football that this year’s team plays leaves crowds spell-bound a similar way Maradona did all on his own on the same pitch three decades ago.
A Team Effort
From front to back, Napoli have a team blessed with rock-solid strength in defence, guile and creativity in midfield, and frightening pace up front. As if their life’s purpose was to win the Scudetto this year, the majority of the squad are in their prime, with a few old, experienced heads and just enough youthful naivety to really believe this is their year.
In goal, the evergreen Pepe Reina (and I mean that, he’s been around so long Lev Yashin probably had a poster of him) commands the back four. Linked with a move away nearly every transfer window, Reina seems determined to win the Scudetto before leaving the club.
Going against the norm of defending being an afterthought for modern fullbacks, Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj both stand around six foot. The pair are both solid defenders first and foremost, but are also quick enough to get forward and deliver pin-point crosses. There is a reason why Ghoulam was heavily linked with Chelsea before his injury this year.
His replacement, the five-foot-seven Portuguese, Mario Rui, makes up in positioning and anticipation what he clearly lacks in presence.
Next up in centre-back, the man-mountain that is Kalidou Koulibaly. Another player rumoured to join the Premier League, the six-foot-four 26 year-old rivals Romelu Lukaku for the player who can throw you the furthest with a shoulder challenge. Far from a brute though, the Senegalese is comfortable on the ball and able to play out from the back with ease, a part of his game which is crucial to Napoli’s style of play.
Beside him, veteran Raul Albiol made the switch from Real Madrid in 2013 and adds a cool, cultured head at the heart of the back four.
In midfield, current club icon, Marek Hamsik overtook Maradona this year for all-time leading goalscorer (118). The mohawked Slovak has been the beating heart of the team for a decade now, and is rightly club captain. Beside him, Allan provides some defensive cover for Hamsik’s marauding runs forward, but also allows the under-rated genius of Jorginho to conjure up to creativity.
The Italian has been so impressive for club and country this year he has left the majority of pundits asking why he is not an Azzurri regular. He has the ability to carry the ball forward and be the spark that ignites exciting, attacking plays which the national team has lacked oh so much in recent years.
Napoli’s front three needs no introduction. But, seeing as that’s my job I probably should anyway. Lorenzo Insigne is the closest current player to emulate Maradona’s style of play in even a small part. At five-foot-four, he is finally fulfilling his potential and maturing into a player small in size, but massive in influence. A winger with dribbling ability arguably unrivalled in Serie A, he has scored nine goals in all competitions so far, prioritising more so on creating chances out of nothing rather than an out-and-out goalscorer.
On the opposite wing is another ex-Real Madrid and Spain international, Jose Callejon. With the same lightning-quick pace as Insigne, Callejon has a bit more physical strength about him, and prefers to run directly at his helpless enem-I mean defences. With similar stats this season as Insigne, the main source of goals is a certain under-valued Belgian.
Step forward, our main man, Dries Mertens. Since Sarri’s stroke of genius in evolving Mertens from a winger to a centre-forward, he has scored goals at a level most strikers never reach who have dedicated their careers to that position. With similar pace, again, to Insigne and Callejon, he has an attacking intelligence and clinical finish that the other two lack in their game. 18 goals so far this season, with many, many more certainly still to come, if Napoli are to win this year’s title, he will be a key factor in the fairytale.
Napoli currently sit just one point ahead of Juventus, who worryingly, are starting to steamroll teams the way they have done for the past six years. If Sarri’s men do make it over the line, it will be a momentous effort and given that some of the squad are likely to leave in summer, we should enjoy it while it lasts.