Napoli’s 2017 was record breaking. Despite a trophy less year, Maurizio Sarri’s men collected an astounding 99 points across the 12 months, considerably more than any year in their history. On Sunday, their season resumes with a trip north to play a team and indeed a Coach that Sarri must hate the very idea of facing: Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta.
If Sarri has a kryptonite, it comes in the form of the 59-year-old Gasperini. For all the plaudits Sarri has won in his relatively short time coaching in the Italian top flight, his record against Gasperini leaves something to be desired – a paltry three wins in 12 games dating all the way back to 2005. Sarri first encountered Gasperini when in charge of Pescara in Serie B. Gasp was the Coach of Crotone and would take four points off Sarri in that 2005-06 season.
Sarri would move on to Tuscan side Arezzo and met Gasperini the following campaign. That game ended in a goalless draw. A further seven years passed before their paths would cross again.
By 2014, Gasperini was in his second spell in charge of Genoa, Sarri in his final season as Empoli boss. Sarri would finally get his first win over Gasperini in the fourth round of the Coppa Italia that December. More draws were followed by another Sarri victory, this time with Napoli.
Gasperini replaced Edy Reja as Coach of La Dea in June 2016 and subsequently transformed them from a side mired in relentless mid-table mediocrity to one now challenging for a Europa League place for the second consecutive season. In fact, Gasperini had the misfortune of finishing fourth when Italy had only three allocated Champions League spots. Had they delayed their brilliant campaign by a year, they could’ve potentially been playing in Camp Nou or the Parc des Princes later in 2018.
Gasperini’s hold over Sarri reached its pinnacle last season, as he not only beat Napoli at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, but also in the San Paolo. Atalanta outfought and out-thought Sarri’s side, to the extent that Napoli, who scored 94 goals and put seven past Bologna, five past Cagliari and Torino – twice – and four past Fiorentina and Sampdoria, failed to find the net in both games against Atalanta. A truly remarkable statistic.
Sarri notched another victory, his last, back in August with a 3-1 win. Drawn together in the quarter-final of the Coppa Italia, Gasperini’s side emerged victorious again with a beautifully taken left-footed goal from Papu Gomez earlier this month.
Gasperini’s revival has been as remarkable as Atalanta’s rise up the table. At one time penciled in as a future Juventus manager during his first highly successful stint with Genoa, his badly-timed spell at Inter in the chaotic post-Mourinho era severely damaged his reputation as one of the brightest Coaches in the Italian game.
Hugely admired by Jose Mourinho himself for his willingness to change formation multiple times during the course of a match, his stock has now returned to its peak 2010-levels. There were even whispers of Gasperini replacing Sarri last summer if the latter had moved on.
Why does Sarri struggle against Gasperini? A clue could be found in Mourinho’s comments. Gasperini has few qualms about tinkering his system throughout the course of a match, if he feels things aren’t going to plan. Sarri, by contrast, has been criticised for exactly the opposite. Since dropping the 4-3-1-2 in the early months of his first season for a 4-3-3, Sarri has failed to develop a Plan B. Sarri’s Napoli are as predictable in their set-up as they’re exhilarating to watch.
Gasperini’s Atalanta are an unorthodox side; a potent mix of muscularity, speed and finesse, they’re unlike most other teams in Serie A. This makes them somewhat awkward to play against, especially at their rambunctious and truly ancient stadium. Gasperini has gotten the best out of Papu Gomez, brought out the unfulfilled potential in Bryan Cristante, and has similarly got Josip Ilicic to add some level of consistency to his game.
Can Sarri end the Gasperini hoodoo on Sunday? Recent history suggests not, but if Napoli want to terminate their near 30-year wait for the Scudetto, this is the kind of game they need to win. With Juve a mere point behind, Sarri can ill afford to let Gasp emerge with yet another victory.