By Greg Lea.
If you have plans for Saturday evening, cancel them. The only thing worth doing at that point of the weekend is settling down on the sofa to watch Juventus’ crunch clash with Napoli, a meeting of two Italian heavyweights that could play a huge part in deciding the destination of this season’s Serie A title.
Just two points separate the pair at the top of the table, with Maurizio Sarri’s side marginally better off than the defending champions. Juventus’ 2-0 victory over Frosinone last weekend was their 14th consecutive win in the league – a new club record – while Napoli have triumphed in their last eight and taken 52 points from the last 57 on offer. While Roma, Inter and Fiorentina were all still in the title picture at Christmas, the race on the peninsula now looks to be limited to two horses.
Whereas Juventus are looking to claim their fifth successive Scudetto, Napoli are aiming to win only their third in their 90-year history. The Partenopei’s two previous championships came in 1987 and 1990, when Diego Maradona inspired the foremost club from Italy’s unfashionable south to glory. Such achievements made the Argentine an instant hero in the city, with supporters always sitting up to listen whenever he gives his verdict on all things Napoli.
Sarri, then, probably did not welcome the influential Maradona voicing his thoughts about him earlier in the campaign. “I don’t know what happened this summer but [Rafael] Benitez was a guarantee for this side,” the legendary No.10 said of the club’s previous boss in September. “I respect Sarri, but he’s not the right coach for a winning Napoli. They gave Sarri a huge birthday present [by appointing him].
“I would have kept Benitez,” Maradona added. “Besides, it’s not like he’s out of work – he’s sat on the bench at Real Madrid now so somebody has clearly got it wrong, and we’re seeing what a mistake they have made now. [The situation] reminds me of my first Napoli, when we were fighting to avoid relegation. This is my biggest fear.”
Five months on and such worries do not merely look misplaced but also downright ridiculous. In fairness to Maradona, though, Sarri certainly did not have the pedigree of his predecessor when he replaced Benitez in June; while the Spaniard had failed to win the league or make progress in Europe at the Stadio San Paulo, Sarri’s only experience of competing in the top flight of the Italian game was a single season at Empoli in 2014/15. With no background in professional football as a player, the man who used to work in a bank in the day before coaching amateur teams in the evening was deemed by some as unqualified to take charge of a club with such lofty ambitions.
Since then, however, the 57-year-old has silenced the doubters. Napoli have played some thrilling football this term, winning games with a flourish and finding a way to combine consistent results with an entertaining style. Gonzalo Higuain is undoubtedly the team’s star – the former Real Madrid man has scored 24 goals in 24 league appearances in 2015/16 – but Napoli’s success thus far has been based on a strong collective and well-defined game plan, both of which their manager deserves a great deal of credit for.
“I was wrong about Sarri,” Maradona admitted two months after his initial comments. “I ask for forgiveness.” If there is anyone who can be pardoned in the city of Naples it is him, and Sarri could soon be held in a similar regard if he is able to guide Napoli to their third league title this year.