'Zadok the Priest' may have lulled them into a trance but Napoli's hopes of a return to the Champions League aren't beyond salvage, says Scott Fleming
Napoli's Partenopei nickname apparently stems from Greek mythology, from the tale of Partenope, a siren that attempted to lure Odysseus to his death on the rocks of Capri, the island near Naples.
It isn't clear whether Partenope knew the tune to 'Zadok the Priest', but the question being asked in Naples now is whether the Champions League anthem has lured the city's football club into a trance and left their Serie A campaign dashed upon the rocks.
Opinions differ, even within the club. Coach Walter Mazzarri's response to every negative result has been more or less the same, the words ‘fatigue’ and ‘Champions League’ never far from his lips. “We are paying the price of fatigue from a long season,” he said after last Wednesday's 3-1 loss at home to Atalanta, an alarming defeat in which the visitors – who had drawn their previous three away games 0-0 – threatened to win by a even more convincing scoreline.
However President Aurelio Di Laurentiis had a different message to convey to the players when he arrived at the Castelvolturno training ground the following day. “There are guys who have been with me for three or four years and I wanted to look them in the eyes,” revealed the movie mogul and part time scooter enthusiast. ”I told them that we cannot always appeal to Champions League fatigue.”
The man known as 'De La' had a point. Back in November and December, when Napoli were navigating their way past Manchester City in the Group of Death, Champions League exertions may have been a valid excuse for somewhat wonky domestic results, but now? The Azzurri have played only two European ties in 2012, and in between those home and away legs against Chelsea they dispatched Parma 2-1 and destroyed Cagliari 6-3, part of a run of five straight Serie A victories. It is since their ejection from the Champions League Last 16, and not before it, that Napoli's form and their chances of participating in the tournament again next season have truly degenerated.
Perhaps some perspective is needed. The club was playing in the lower leagues and on the verge of extinction less than a decade ago - maybe progressing to the cusp of the Champions League quarter-finals and winning a legion of new admirers along the way is worth a lacklustre League campaign. Next month they have the chance to win their first honour of note since 1991 when they contest the Coppa Italia Final with Juventus.
But this is Italy, what happened last month or last year doesn't matter, only the last result. “I did not see the usual San Paolo,” said captain Paolo Cannavaro after the Atalanta game. “The public did a good job to whistle us at the end, that was right, but during the match I expected a greater charge. We do not feel trust outside, I hear the hasty judgements, of finished cycles.”
Contributing to this unease is the uncertainty regarding Mazzarri. The first thing asked of any opposition tactician after his team plays Napoli these days is whether he'll be Coaching them next season. Vincenzo Montella, Giuseppe Sannino and Stefano Colantuono have all been popped the question in recent weeks. Mazzarri's history of abrupt departures - he walked out on home town club Livorno after winning them promotion from Serie B and Reggina after saving them relegation despite an 11-point Calciopoli penalty – and rumours linking him with the Inter job, have added fuel to the talk of 'finished cycles' that Cannavaro referenced.
But encouragement can be found in a closer look at De Laurentiis's storming of Castelvolturno, which appears to have been an exercise in arms round shoulders rather than boots up behinds. “I said 'Guys smile, you're players of Napoli and here its sunny.' It was a relaxing meeting. I believe that with the great spirit Mazzarri has the group is in good hands.”
Even in Serie A all is not lost. This weekend, whilst Lazio, Udinese and Co. are engaged in much trickier fixtures, the Vesuviani are at home to all but relegated Novara, a chance to slingshot themselves back into the reckoning for third place. The siren's song has faded, now all Mazzarri has to do is steer them away from the rocks.