It has been a long time since Napoli were last crowned champions of Italy. Indeed, twenty-six long years ago have passed from the days when Diego Maradona inspired the Stadio San Paolo outfit to the league title, and it is somewhat fitting that a local-born coach has now steered them back to the top of the Serie A standings.
Born in the city’s Bagnoli district, Maurizio Sarri proudly took charge of the Partenopei last summer with just one year of top flight experience, finally moving back to his hometown after spending most of his life in Tuscany. It was there that he established himself as a well-paid executive for Monte dei Paschi di Siena – the oldest banking institution in the world – while simultaneously working part-time as a coach with various amateur teams in the area.
Forced to quit the security of his day job in order to further his career on the sidelines, Sarri enjoyed steady progress as he spent time in charge of Pescara, Perugia and Hellas Verona before being appointed by Serie B side Empoli in the summer of 2012. Narrowly missing out on promotion in his first year there, they would achieve that aim just twelve months later as he oversaw an entertaining and free-flowing side.
Also making them tough for opponents to beat, his ability attracted the attention of Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis. He saw the 57 year old as the ideal candidate to replace Rafael Benitez, and his faith appears to be well-placed as Sarri has the Partenopei looking far better than they ever did under the Spanish boss.
Without any significant arrivals, his attention to defensive details includes using a drone to track player movement during training drills and has seen Napoli concede just 19 times in the 24 games played thus far. If that stands in stark contrast to the 73 goals scored against them in all competitions last term, the difference is still less pronounced than that between the rugged Sarri – who paces the touchline in a club tracksuit – and the immaculately turned out Max Allegri who he will face on Saturday night in Turin.
Like his opposite number, the Juventus boss has also embraced technology, recently launching a tactics website and app, while it is interesting to note that he was born in Livorno, only 75 miles away from Figline Valdarno where Sarri raised. Mr Allegri’s team now sit just two-points behind the league leaders, a remarkable turnaround after winning just once in their opening six matches.
They have needed a club record of fourteen consecutive victories to drag themselves back into contention, and the run is merely the latest achievement for a coach who has already enjoyed incredible success with Juventus. Completing the domestic double for only the third time in club history last term saw the former Milan boss widely lauded, but he too began life as a coach in much less prestigious surroundings.
Taking charge of sides such as Aglianese, Grosseto and Cagliari, he is in no doubt about the importance of those experiences. “That time in the provinces is invaluable,” the 48 year old told this writer back in November. “It gives you the fundamental experience needed to be a successful coach, because while everyone dreams of a big club, you first need to learn how to do the job.”
After leading the Rossoneri to a title in his first season, he repeated the feat with Juventus and now hopes to prevent Sarri from doing the same. Both men have understandably downplayed the significance of Saturday’s head-to-head encounter, but in his usual bullish manner the Napoli boss told reporters that “if you offered me a draw, I wouldn’t accept!”
“We’re going to Turin to play our game. They are stronger than us but we have to be bold,” he continued, and that approach has certainly served them well. The team has scored a league-high 53 goals so far, with Gonzalo Higuain netting 24 of those in the same number of appearances while local-born forward Lorenzo Insigne has added ten goals and ten assists.
Juventus will rely on their own Argentinean star in Paulo Dybala, who has already struck 16 times for the Bianconeri following his summer move from Palermo. However, the reigning champions will have to contend with a number of key injuries as Mario Mandzukic, Giorgio Chiellini and Martin Caceres have all been ruled out, but German midfielder Sami Khedira hopes to recover in time to play.
While the Napoli boss may have no such concerns, he may need to reconsider his opinion on whether or not “Scudetto” will remain a swear word should the result of this clash go his way. “It is,” he told reporters at the turn of the year when asked about his earlier declaration that it was taboo. “But you know, I am a Tuscan, and where I come from we swear quite a bit.”
Max Allegri is too, and you get the impression either he or Maurizio Sarri will be left cursing in the Turin air by the time the final whistle blows on Saturday.
Napoli will have the upper hand over Juventus heading into next weekend’s Serie A title showdown in Turin after both Scudetto rivals secured narrow wins on Sunday.
The table-topping Azzurri are two points clear of reigning champions Juve following their slender 1-0 victory over Carpi. Gonzalo Higuain’s 24th goal of the season came from the penalty spot after Raffaele Bianco was dismissed.
Juve would have drawn level with Napoli before hosting the southerners on Saturday had their 2-0 triumph at Frosinone been coupled with a stalemate at the Stadio San Paolo – but they celebrated making history nonetheless.
Gonzalo Higuain scores his 24th goal in his 24th Serie A game of the season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 7, 2016
Can't stop scoring right now. pic.twitter.com/8Qp2dcf24Q
Juan Cuadrado left it late to open the scoring with in-form forward Paulo Dybala notching in stoppage time to ensure Juve had managed to win 14 consecutive league games for the first time ever.
Massimiliano Allegri is confident the Bianconeri will be ready for next weekend’s top-of-the-table clash.
“It’ll be a fine game, it certainly won’t decide the Scudetto, but we’ll be ready for it,” Allegri told Mediaset. “We have important players that Napoli need to worry about.
“I can only compliment [Napoli coach] Maurizio Sarri, because he’s having a great campaign. It had been many years since Napoli were top of the table like this.”
He added on Sunday’s win: “The lads did well today, but could’ve done better. When you play certain games you know sooner or later a goal will arrive, so rushing just gives the opposition an advantage.”
Internazionale’s hopes of snatching the Scudetto continue to fade as the Nerazzurri were held to a 3-3 draw by basement boys Hellas Verona at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi.
Roberto Mancini’s men recovered from two goals down after Filip Helander, Eros Pisano and Artur Ionita replied to Jeison Murillo’s early opener. Captain Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perisic then struck to salvage a point for Inter.
Elsewhere, Udinese checked AC Milan’s progress up the table by forcing a 1-1 draw at San Siro. Pablo Armero returned to hurt his former employers, meaning M’Baye Niang had to equalise for sixth-placed Milan.
Just behind the Rossoneri are Sassuolo, who were themselves thwarted by lowly opposition as struggling Palermo grabbed a 2-2 draw.
Inter’s Scudetto hopes were hit hard last night as Milan claimed only their second derby win in a decade with a resounding 3-0 victory at San Siro.
Alex opened the scoring with a powerful header on 35 minutes from Keisuke Honda’s cross to give Milan 1-0 half-time lead.
Inter were handed a lifeline as Mauro Icardi won a dubious-looking penalty within seven minutes after emerging as a second-half substitute. However the Argentine hit his spot-kick against the post.
Milan then made the Nerazzurri pay with Mbaye Niang’s cross finding Carlos Bacca for the Colombian to score. Niang then added a third when he scored at the second attempt after Samir Handanovic had saved his initial effort.
Inter have now won just one of their last six and Roberto Mancini’s side are nine points off leaders Napoli who beat Empoli 5-1.
Juventus had temporarily dislodged Maurizio Sarri’s side with a 4-0 win at Chievo but, despite falling behind to Leandro Paredes’ opener, the southerners responded confidently. Gonzalo Higuain grabbed his 22nd goal of the season as he burst into the box to meet Lorenzo Insigne’s cross from the left and, in the 37th minute, provider turned goalscorer thanks to his free-kick.
The Azzurri managed to extend their advantage when Michele Camporese put the ball into his own goal when trying to anticipate Higuain’s run. There was no way back for Sarri’s former club and Jose Callejon confirmed the outcome with quicklytaken brace in the dying moments.
At the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi, Alvaro Morata’s first-half double put Juventus in control against Chievo and Alex Sandro and Paul Pogba added to the lead after the break.