With the title race poised for a dramatic climax in Serie A, a movie mogul like Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis couldn't resist seeing things as if sat in a director's chair. Sunday's 4-3 victory at home to Lazio was a box office thriller. Edy Reja, the old gunslinger, was back in town. "He was my Clint Eastwood," De Laurentiis grinned. But the leading role belonged to Walter Mazzarri. "He is quite feisty and that suits me fine. I'd cast Sean Penn as him."
Mazzarri might not be entirely comfortable being associated with an actor who starred in the film Dead Man Walking. Nevertheless, with seven games remaining and just three points separating Napoli from League leaders Milan, he is in the running for an academy award and the critical acclaim isn't lacking. Lost in the furor of Cesare Prandelli's interview with Radio CrC in which he angered Milan by saying: "In this title race I am supporting Napoli" was a thought-provoking appraisal of Mazzarri's achievements.
"He really is the true Diego Maradona of this team," the Italy Coach claimed. "He has the ability to lift the characteristics of individuals to the maximum." It's a salient point. After all, Napoli, in the past, have won Scudetti with tacticians who were introverts forgotten by history such as Ottavio Bianchi and Alberto Bigon and players who were extroverts such as Diego Maradona and Salvatore Bagni. That tendency has been inverted by Mazzarri. The only eccentric now on the Napoli playing staff is Ezequiel Lavezzi. The rest of the players either go home to their wives or to church.
Indeed, wherever Mazzarri has gone in football, he has always imposed his personality, throwing his jacket on the bench and rolling up the sleeves of his white shirt as if spoiling for a fight. When last season De Laurentiis told reporters that he'd rather have Mazzarri sat on his bench than Jose Mourinho, the Special One quite cuttingly pointed out that a few tin pots in regional Tuscan championships didn't stand up to his own considerable trophy haul. However, underestimating the Napoli Coach is an exercise in folly.
He got his hometown club Livorno promoted to Serie A, then inspired the greatest escape of recent times by leading Reggina to survival despite a 15-point penalty after Calciopoli, and of course booked Sampdoria a place in Coppa Italia Final for the first time since 1994. All of that would pale into comparison if he were to lead Napoli to the Scudetto. And the omens are good.
The last time Napoli were second at this stage of the season was 21 years ago. Back then, Maradona's side were two points behind Milan but at the end of the campaign they were crowned champions. The question is can history repeat itself?
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