The last gasp strike against Chievo last weekend sent the San Paolo into delirium. As Amadou Diawara celebrated, the emotion in the stadium left many fans, like the team, exhausted. This has been a sign of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in recent weeks, a jaded version of their former self continuing to fight to the last. Like a glorious cavalry brigade, they started off with their uniforms crisp, their presentation and application immaculate. Now after a long war, they resemble a tired few fighting hard until the bitter end.
Napoli bring to most campaigns a special emotion, a touch of class and by most people’s reckoning this season a special team too. The evolution of the Partenopei under Sarri has been a marvel of what can be achieved by modern day coaching.
The former Empoli man arrived with a strict regime and began to shore up the defence that had been vulnerable in previous years. His gradual changes in style saw him develop the team to such an extent that they evolved quicker than expected, into an attacking force led by the record breaking Gonzalo Higuain.
After the Argentinian departed to rivals Juventus, there was a large hole in the squad when it came to goals and Sarri challenged his team to step up and take on the responsibility, especially when Arkadiusz Milik injured himself.
Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon, Allan and none more so than Dries Mertens duly obliged and before long Sarri had created a free-flowing utilitarian unit that shared the goals in cultured style. It was like the Paris Commune with a corporate streak, a hybrid of two opposite mentalities, to share for the purpose of victory.
This season the evolution has continued and had The Old Lady not been so ruthless themselves, then Napoli would be on course for the title after acquiring 71 points after 31 games. The goals flew in early on, as 6-0 v Benevento, 4-1 v Lazio and a number of 3-0 victories meant that (other than a defeat to Juventus) they looked unstoppable. From December 16 to February 26, they won 10 games in a row before Roma defeated them, and this included a 5-0 victory against Cagliari, another 4-1 v Lazio and they hit three goals in three more games.
It was after this run that they seemed tired, jaded, simply worn out. A 0-0 draw with Inter, a scrappy win against Genoa, a 0-0 draw with Sassuolo and that last gasp win over Chievo bring them up to date.
The mindset is there, they are not giving up, far from it, they are fighting to the last round, but they have little in the tank. They stopped with the cavalier approach some time ago. Sarri’s main improvement from last season was that when they haven’t played well, they have (like Juventus) learned to be ruthless and pragmatic, but now this is different.
As we come into the final weeks of the season they face Milan, Udinese and then Juventus again. The fact that they are so tired may come back to haunt them and the blame lays at the feet of Sarri. The former Empoli man is famous for his obsession with coaching, a disinterest in the transfer market and crucially only trusting a small number of his squad to perform for him. This lack of trust may be their undoing. Just watch the difference in Lorenzo Insigne against Milan. This is a man running on empty, yet still having the weight of Naples on his back.
One hope for them is Milik, as the Pole who scored last weekend can offer something different, something fresh. He allows Napoli to play a more conventional way, he gives them a Plan B and perhaps can offer some goals at a time when they badly need help getting over the line.
Napoli are close, but Milan need dispatching, and this isn’t an easy task. Gattuso is dogged, determined and a war of attrition is perhaps the last thing Napoli need. If they can utilise the fresh legs of Milik and dig deep, then they may be able to keep the title fight alive for the showdown against Juventus.