When Anthony Taylor blew the full-time whistle at the Diego Maradona Stadium in Naples, the home fans were already singing.
Their team, Napoli, had just beaten defending Europa League winner, Eintracht Frankfurt, over two legs, to enter the Champions League quarterfinal for the first time.
“It’s a great win; we rewrote the history of this club,” said Victor Osimhen, who scored three of the five goals across both legs, “We keep dreaming without limits. We just follow our coach and look ahead.”
Napoli, a club that suffered bankruptcy in 2004 and subsequently saw an exodus of players due to poor economic conditions, is now among the among the top eight of the European elite and 18 points clear at the top of Serie A.
Luciano Spalletti’s side has, in a couple of seasons, become a team of mercenaries on-field while the team has come out as an embodiment of Thomas Paine’s famous aphorism — ‘The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.’
Manager of Napoli – a job on thin ice ends with Spalletti
Italian film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, who is Napoli’s owner and president, was at the cynosure of a hiring and firing spree for over a decade, as the club struggled to get its hands on the coveted Scudetto.
Having taken over the club in 2004, Napoli saw its first ray of hope under Maurizio Sarri, who replaced Rafael Benitez.
The banker-turner-manager may have been wooed by Premier League overtures eventually, but it was under him that the club started believing that the top spot (in Serie A) was a possibility.
“We gave Sarri everything and in three years we didn’t win anything,” De Laurentiis had told L’Equipe. “There remains the pleasure of having played well but also the bitterness of not having won anything.”
An impatient De Laurentiis eventually saw Napoli’s managerial job into some sort of a summer camp, with short spells from Carlo Ancelotti and Gennaro Gattuso.
Ancelotti – then a five-time Champions League winner (twice as a player, thrice as manager) – was sacked first, despite taking the club in the UCL round of 16, and the one who followed (Gattuso) was shown the door one-and-half seasons later.
The buck finally stopped at Italy’s old warhorse, Luciano Spalletti, a two-time Serie A coach of the year. The 63-year-old, who led Roma to its last Italian silverware 16 years ago, continues to weave his magic in southern Italy, this time with Naples.
“The coach is an employee of the highest level, I did not take him here to make bubù-settete, I took him because he was Mr. Spalletti,” the club’s owner enthused recently.
Making a team rather than buying one
Spalletti has been in the storm of criticism by football fans for some harsh decisions when in charge of a club.
While his time at Roma saw him being under pressure to bench (and at times leave out) club legend Francesco Totti, his stint at Napoli saw him allow the club’s highest-ever goalscorer, Dries Mertens, to leave for free.
Some of the most prominent stars of the Sarri era – Lorenzo Insigne (captain), Mertens (vice-captain), Kalidou Koulibaly and a crucial presence in the midfield, Fabian Ruiz – left the club as the Italian planned a fresh revamp in Naples.
The players who arrived instead were not superstars in Europe, but lesser-known young prospects, hungry to make a name for themselves. Victor Osimhen, a 21-year-old lanky forward who had impressed with Lille in Ligue 1, joined for a club record of 80 million euros.
Two years later, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia – another 21-year-old – joined the side from the Georgian club Dinamo Batumi, for just 10 million euros, both of whom have finally formed a menacing duo in the final.
In the same window, the southern Italy side signed Kim Min-Jae from Fenerbahce as Koulibaly left for Chelsea and the fans got more raucous, not in favour but against Spalletti.
The Italian – turning a bling eye to increasing fan protests – continued to further strengthen the side, signing Giacomo Raspadori from Sassuolo and Giovanni Simeone from Hellas Verona.
Maradona and Bruno Giordano were one of Napoli’s most feared pairs back in the day while Kvaratskhelia, along with Osimhen, has fit in their shoes well.
Spaletti’s style of play
Luciano Spaletti’s Napoli has played most of its game in a 4-3-3 formation with Osimhen as the head of the front three. However, his presses look to have taken some leaves out of great Ariggo Sachhi’s book of consistent high pressure.
“The players had to be protagonists through pressing,” Sachhi had written in his autobiography and Spaletti’s boys have done just that.
The philosophy of constant pressing allows Napoli to keep its opponent under pressure, irrespective of whether it has the ball or not. This, in turn, forces errors by the opponent and that is when Napoli’s pace comes into play – to attack against the run of play and strike right on time.
The drawback of this style is that it demands a lot (in terms of stamina) from players and that is where the depth of the squad gets important.
Raspadori’s ability to score with either foot and Simeone’s pace, along with the consistent goalscoring ability of the regular starting XI, has seen the side score 60 goals in Serie A – more than any other side in the league and 13 more than the closest competitor, Inter Milan.
In defence, too, Napoli has been rock solid with a four-man backline and a mid-block that has shifted from a three-man matrix to a four-man second line during counterattacks by the opposition.
Matteo Politano has been central to Spaletti’s plans to change formations in the final third.
While Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia have been the mainstay in the final third, the regulation of Hirving Lozano and Politano has been dependent on the approach to a game.
Politano often drops down into the mid-block, making the formation into a 4-4-2 one and that trods the Sacchi way to dominate and attack.
Out of Maradona’s shadow?
Maradona is worshipped in Naples for reasons beyond football.
Maradona – who became a World Champion while at the Neopolitan side – brought with him the aura of working-class struggle into a league dominated by the northern and central Italian sides, namely Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan.
Napoli, which was battling relegation in 1983, lifted its first-ever Scudetto (Serie A title) within three years and won its second in 1990, with him at the helm both times.
“Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism,” he had said once while he had recalled to journalist Daniel Arcucci that the marginalisation of the region was “north against south, the racists against the poor.”
The title has eluded Napoli since.
But this season, the Italian side remains on the cusp of reclaiming a glory that made the south, Italy’s south, truly great.
The people of Naples have found their own modern-day Maradona (at least on the field) in Kvaratskhelia who showed his phenomenal goalscoring ability, most recently against Atalanta, when he beat five defenders and the goalkeeper to score for the Partenopei.
“If you watch the move again, you’ll see it’s eight against one. You think to yourself — he can’t score a goal like that,” AC Milan legend Marco Van Basten told ad.nl.
The Georgian deservedly has earned the sobriquet ‘Kvaradona’, with 28 goal contributions (13 goals, 15 assists) in 29 games for Napoli this season.
Napoli’s spell with Maradona was one of the most illustrious times for the club, with it winning the Serie A twice (1986–87, 1989–90), and the Coppa Italia (1986–87), Supercoppa Italiana (1990) and the UEFA Cup 1988–89 once.
The class of 2023, after cruising into the quarterfinals, has bettered its European ambitions and stares at a chance to do the impossible of actually going ahead and winning the Champions League and the Serie A at the same time.
Maradona could not live long enough to see his former home rise to such a peak but the national and continental success, along with firepower from Spalletti’s side would see the Argentine smile. After all, he stood in southern Italy more than most Italians at one point in time.
Now that they rise, it will be interesting to see how big the club can now get and whether that expands beyond the gamut of Diego Armando Maradona’s tally of silverware here.