Napoli eye a first since Diego Maradona
Argentina are world champions and Napoli have beaten Juventus 5-1. Just like it was in 1986-87 and 89-90 when they won their only league titles
If Sebastien Haller’s Bundesliga debut for Borussia Dortmund after a six-month fight against testicular cancer was the January high in Europe’s top five leagues, Napoli’s 13-point lead at the top of Serie A would be a close second. This is beginning to look like the first time since 1989-90 that they could be champions of Italy. Then, Diego Maradona played for them. Now, Napoli play at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
Naples is where the magic and the myth of Maradona have morphed. When Napoli won their first league title, Maradona “confirmed, albeit ephemerally and via the conduit of football, that the south was the north’s equal,” wrote Guillem Balague in his book, ‘The Boy, The Rebel, The God.’ Naples accorded Maradona semi-divine stature which he sometimes found suffocating, the book says. Even now, ‘I love Diego’ banners flutter when Napoli are at home.
They did when Victor Osimhen netted a beauty on Sunday. The league’s top scorer with 14 strikes chested Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s delivery from the left, controlled the ball with his thigh and volleyed home. The lead was cancelled by Stephan El Shaarawy but up stepped Giovanni Simeone from the bench to fire a winner that curled away from Rui Patricio in Roma’s goal. It was Napoli’s eighth successive home win. Only once, in 1989-90, have they won more, 11.
“Our whole squad was playing that game, right down to the kit man,” said Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti. Championships are not won unless everyone pulls in the same direction and having bagged a league with Zenit St Petersburg and taken Roma to a record 87 points in Serie A, Spalletti knows all about that. His team has dropped only seven points so far.
The 2-1 win took Napoli to 53 points keeping them on course to match the Serie A record of 102 points set by Antonio Conte’s Juventus in 2013-14. For Jose Mourinho, the title race has already become a procession. “I don’t want to be misinterpreted…(but) Napoli have won it, it’s theirs and they deserve it,” the Roma manager said before the game.
No team has had this big an advantage in Serie A history after 20 games since the league began awarding three points for a win in 1994 so Mourinho does have a point. Also, with defending champions AC Milan’s campaign disintegrating and Juventus being docked 15 points for fudging accounts in transfer dealings, this does look like Napoli’s title to lose.
"Napoli will win the league. History shows that a team with that many points at the halfway point has always won it," Giuseppe Bruscolotti told AFP. A former right-back and captain, Bruscolotti played 16 years for Napoli and was part of the club’s first successful Serie A campaign in 1986-87.
Napoli lost the first game after the winter break this term, to Inter. That had happened in 1987 too, fans have been quick to point out. Not just that, who were the reigning world champions then, they are asking.
That isn’t the only coincidence. Napoli beat Juventus 5-1 this term with Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia, who leads the league’s assists tally, running rings around a team that won nine Serie A titles between 2011-12 and 2019-20. Napoli did that in the 1990 Italian Super Cup too with Maradona playing behind strikers Andrea Silenzi and Careca both of whom got a brace.
Their round-of-16 defeat in the Coppa Italia to Cremonese after beating Juventus remains a blip in a season where Napoli have spanked Liverpool 4-1 and Ajax 6-1. Napoli topped their Champions League group and will meet Eintracht Frankfurt in the round of 16. To have done this despite missing Osimhen, Amir Rrahmani, Andre-Frank Anguissi and Kvaratskhelia due to injury early in the season shows why Napoli could be a team to reckon with beyond Italy as well.
Crucial to that have been players such as Kvaratskhelia. The 21-year-old has been a steal from Georgian club Dinamo Batumi who sold him for around $13 million last July. Also having a good season are midfielder Stanislav Lobotka, defender Kim Min-jae, his partner in central defence Rrahmani, right back Giovanni di Lorenzo and Osimhen. They have got Naples dreaming again... of Maradona and the title.