Impressive victories alongside outstanding football has got the city of Naples dreaming of a first Scudetto since 1990, says Tom Rowland.
Three victories in a row and a four-game unbeaten run helped Napoli claim the ‘winter title’ in Serie A this season after an impressive first half of the season, which also saw them win 12 matches out of 19 domestically.
Over the weekend, Napoli maintained their purchase on the Serie A lead with a 3-1 home victory over Sassuolo, extending their winning streak to four. Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri has rightly been praised for how he has developed this squad into table-toppers in mid-January.
Born in the city, Sarri knows how football and fans work in this hotbed of calcio. Even if it didn’t start too promising with only one win in their opening five matches, leading Naples hero Diego Maradona to complain about him being in charge of the club and saying he would never win anything as coach. But the former bank manager wasn’t too concerned.
The movement of the team to a 4-3-3 has brought the best out of key players. Gonzalo Higuain has 20 goals in 20 games, adding two to his tally in the defeat of Sassuolo on Saturday night, and is set to be Capocannoniere this season. Lorenzo Insigne has flourished and after numerous standout performances, he currently has eight goals and seven assists, while Marek Hamsik’s four goals and six assists have helped link the forward line and midfield.
Attack is only one part of the story, though. Sarri and his impeccable attention to detail, including the use of drones on the training pitch, has built a solid defence from a previous porous one with only 16 goals conceded. In last season’s campaign, they conceded 54 with a similar defence. Sarri healed their Achilles heel.
All of this has seen the Partenopei defeat Juventus, Inter, Fiorentina and Milan, scoring five goals on five occasions and having created a fortress at the Stadio San Paolo where they are unbeaten all season in all competitions.
With such an open season in Italy, this title really is up for grabs, it just depends who can remain consistent through to May. Napoli have played the best football on the peninsula so far but lurking just two points behind on 42 points is Juventus.
After just three victories in their opening 10 Serie A matches, Juventus have won 10 successive matches. Following a transitional summer in Turin where key players departed and new signings took a while to adapt, the Old Lady has soared back into the title race. That’s the consistency needed for the Scudetto.
One of those new signings, young star Paulo Dybala, has taken on the goalscoring responsibility following Carlos Tevez’s return to Argentina. He has 11 goals to his name so far and notched his first league double in the weekend’s away victory over Udinese.
Juventus have the experience to deal with a title run-in, and in this form, will hope to claim a fifth consecutive Scudetto. Napoli’s fervent fan base passionately want to see their team just go top of Serie A; imagine the scenes if they claim the title for the first time since 1990.
Those were the days of Maradona and the Argentinian legend has since backtracked from his early season comments to throw his support behind Napoli’s Scudetto chances. Sarri stated though, as he has all campaign, that “Juventus are still Scudetto favourites.”
Whatever happens, the second half of the season is set to be enthralling.