Napoli and Manchester City have a lot in common. They both lead their respective Leagues, are the top scorers in each and wear sky-blue jerseys. What unites them even more, however, is their Coaches, with Maurizio Sarri’s idea of ‘Sarrismo’ having its roots in the ‘tiki-taka’ style implemented by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. If there was a match for purists, this would be it.
The mere notion that these two Coaches will face each other in the Champions League on Tuesday is made all the more remarkable when you compare the backstories of each. Guardiola had just won the Treble with Barca in 2009 when Sarri was still coaching Perugia in Lega Pro, before being sacked after a defeat to Gallipoli – now plying their trade in Serie D.
Eight years on, and Napoli and City’s deadly concoction of aesthetics and functionality make them arguably Europe’s two best teams on current form. Sarri’s Partenopei play a quick possession game, with plenty of geometry and expression, just like Guardiola’s Barca. City, on the other hand, are a little more versatile and not quite as swashbuckling, but no less effective.
“[Napoli] do many, many things and all the things they do, they do perfectly,” Guardiola said at a Press conference. “They are not a team that is going to wait. There is going to be high pressing and they have the ability to make amazing build-ups, especially in the middle. They have three guys that are so dynamic, [Lorenzo] Insigne, [Dries] Mertens and [Jose] Callejon.”
Sarri quickly returned the favour, adding: “They win all their games with at least five goals. The last time they didn’t score a goal was August, and they’re also strong in the defensive phase. It will be very hard… They always press the ball with a lot of men. I’ve seen important things from City... They’re clearly the best team in Europe… The feeling of strength I get from City I didn’t even get from Real Madrid last year.”
High praise indeed, but given the magnitude of the encounter and the unbeaten starts the two sides have made, it could’ve all been just mind games for the cameras. Furthermore, Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis suggested Serie A was more important to his club than the Champions League and also advised Sarri to rest several players for the trip to Manchester.
“I think that some of our players should sit out this game, with Inter only around the corner and being just as important,” noted the patron. “Guardiola’s praise? It concerned me… I wouldn’t like it if his praise resulted in my players losing focus. He’s a wily old fox and he knows the quality of his squad, which is remarkable.”
Guardiola may have been the innovator of the high-pressing, short-passing style that has become the blueprint for so many teams and Coaches of today, but Sarri’s influence in turning Napoli from a pragmatic, shape-based outfit into an idealistic, free-flowing one and establishing them as Scudetto contenders has gone some way towards closing the 12-year age gap between the pair.
The romance will quickly be replaced by the sizzling cauldron of a Champions League night, with the southerners needing a victory to have any hopes of winning Group F, but it promises to be one of the most absorbing and satisfying match-ups of the season. It’s Napoli versus City, ‘Sarrismo’ versus ‘Guardiolismo’ and the young master versus his old student.