Napoli are champions-elect, but does a lack of competition take away the shine? | A series

youThe Stadio Carlo Castellani held some unhappy recent memories for Napoli. It was here that their title challenge fell apart last April, when an 80th-minute 2-0 lead over Empoli turned into a 3-2 defeat. They were the authors of their own demise back then, the equalizer coming when goalkeeper Alex Meret lost possession and allowed Andrea Pinamonti to block a clearance attempt straight into his net.

Could they self-destruct a second time? They had an identical 2-0 lead on Sunday when Mário Rui received a meaningless red card, kicking Francesco Caputo. Instead of reeling, Napoli became even more one-man dominant, enjoying a solid five-minute run inside the last quarter hour when they didn’t allow Empoli to touch outside their own half.

Such is the dominance of the elected Serie A champions. Even in Italy’s most superstitious city, it no longer feels dangerous to define them as such. With Internazionale losing to Bologna on Sunday, Napoli are now 18 points clear at the top.

They have lost once all season, against nerazzurri in his first game back from the World Cup break. Since then, he has racked up eight consecutive league victories: he scored 21 goals and conceded just two. There was a surprising slip up in the Coppa Italia, Napoli were knocked out on penalties by bottom of Serie A, Cremonese, but they had rotated the starting 10 on the field.

How does a team that hasn’t won the league in 33 years find itself in a position where ending that drought feels like a formality at the end of February? Napoli was not the favorite of the preseason.

Luciano Spalletti reminded journalists at a press conference last week that many of them had gambled on finishing outside the top four, but his team’s own fans had hardly felt confident. One interrupted her attempt to introduce the team at an event in July and yelled “wake up!”

The coach had been acknowledging the departures of captain Lorenzo Insigne, vice-captain Kalidou Koulibaly and record scorer Dries Mertens in a single transfer window. Now Spalletti responded to his interlocutor, raising his voice and insisting: “Others have arrived, bringing with them a new enthusiasm. And more will come.”

In fact, new faces have played their part. The signing of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia from Dinamo Batumi for just over 10 million euros was arguably the best deal made by a club in Europe last year. His 10 league goals and nine assists tell only part of the story, leaving out how he unbalances defenses with two-foot passes and hip-moving dribbles. Only Rafael Leão has beaten his man more times in Serie A this season.

Luciano Spalletti (right) is the architect behind a runaway title success, demanding hard work until the very end. Photo: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Kim Min-Jae has also been colossal, signing for less than half what Chelsea paid for Koulibaly and providing even more consistency at centre. Other summer signings such as Giacomo Raspadori, Giovanni Simeone or Mathías Olivera have regularly contributed from the bench.

However, nine of the players who started against Empoli were already on the books last year. This was pretty much Spalletti’s strongest team, with the most common variations being swapping Hirving Lozano for Matteo Politano (another returning player) on the right flank and Mário Rui for Olivera on the left flank on European nights.

The real reasons why Napoli escapes with the Scudetto are two. The most obvious thing to point out is the lack of competition. No other team is on track to finish with more than 74 points. Last season’s champions Milan suffered a disastrous new year wobble that saw them drop 13 in five games. Inter can’t seem to decide if they are the team that beat Napoli earlier this year and Porto in midweek or the one that timidly lost to Bologna at the weekend. Juventus, even without their 15-point deduction, would be no closer to first than those other two.

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This lack of a domestic rival has led many to question how good Napoli really are. Champions League nights continue to provide answers. After defeating Liverpool, Ajax and Rangers in the group stage, Spalletti’s side made light work of Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of the round of 16. A 2-0 lead puts them on course to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in club history.

The biggest part of this puzzle is simply that the team has improved under Spalletti. There is a measure of good fortune. Victor Osimhen has missed 39 games through illness and injury over the past two seasons, but just six so far this season and none since early October. When he’s fit, he can be one of the best center forwards on the planet. He has scored in eight consecutive league games and got the first goal in Frankfurt.

More than anything, however, Napoli’s players have accepted Spalletti’s coaching, adapting to a selfless and responsive style of play. On the surface, his team seems fairly predictable, lining up almost always in the same 4-3-3, but his approach to each game is determined by the opponent, the emphasis shifting to exploiting spaces as they appear.

Players are empowered to take risks and trust their judgment because they know they have teammates behind them. Soccer analysis website Ultimo Uomo cited Statsbomb data last week showing only two players in all of Serie A have lost possession more often this season than Kvaratskhelia, but also that Napoli had gotten the ball back from opponents. in the last third more than any other. another team.

Spalletti shone on Sunday as he recalled a moment from his team’s previous win, away from home against Sassuolo. “We lost the ball in a corner,” he said. “What happened next, I have never seen anything like it in 25 years as a coach. 10 players in a frenzy, all running to make up ground and get behind the line of the ball… that’s where you understand you have a team that is rock solid, that doesn’t want to give up anything.”

The footage from that moment is quite interesting, Osimhen arriving in a makeshift left-back position while the entire Napoli team sprints to plug the gaps. Sometimes, of course, they still need a little help from the bench. Against Empoli, Spalletti stole the show when the pitch microphones caught him screaming Kvaratskhelia in broken English after the Georgian deflected offside.

#Spalletti: “Contro il #Sassuolo noi perdiamo palla su un angolo, ed in 25 anni non avevo mai visto gol una cosa del genere. Vedere dieci assatanati riportarsi dietro la linea difensiva per non prendere gol”.#Napoli #SassuoloNapoli

— Luca Paesano (@LucaPaesano5) February 26, 2023


Coming into full time, his only gripes were with Rui for that unnecessary red card. Napoli had taken the lead with an own goal, Ardian Ismajli deflecting Piotr Zielinski’s cross into their own net, and were 2-0 up on 28 minutes, when Osimhen converted the rebound after Guglielmo Vicario saved Kvaratskhelia’s early shot wide. of the area. box. At no point did they seem really ready to give in. “The players know that we have a really important opportunity,” Spalletti said of the full-time Scudetto. “They need to do it for the fans. For its people”.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario now where they wouldn’t make it, the only real question now is whether they’ll cross the line in April or May. If anything, the fear is that this monumental achievement – the third Serie A title for Napoli and the first since Diego Maradona left the club – could feel disappointing without an opponent to bring them closer.

From life-size cutouts of their starting XI materializing in the Spanish Quarter this weekend to street vendors already selling flags emblazoned with the number three and pizza makers following a special Scudetto recipe in interviews with national newspapers, the people of Naples are already gearing up to ensure that a team and a city get the celebration they deserve.

Milan 2-0 Atalanta, Udinese 2-2 Spezia, Salernitana 3-0 Monza, Bologna 1-0 Inter, Lecce 0-1 Sassuolo, Empoli 0-2 Napoli

Monday Verona v Fiorentina, Lazio v Sampdoria
Tuesday Cremonese v Roma, Juventus v Torino


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