Napoli fired Carlo Ancelotti in December just hours after securing a place in the Champions League Round of 16. Now they are poised to beat their previous tactician and old rivals with potentially their first silverware in six years. It’s quite the movie that the Partenopei have plotted out, now to see how it ends.
Their season was heading for disaster on December 11, struggling in Serie A, scraping through in Europe and with the squad openly at war with President Aurelio De Laurentiis, who wanted to dock their wages as punishment for refusing to stay in a training retreat. Players were spending more time with their lawyers than coaching staff, contract talks dragged on and there was no unity whatsoever. Enter Gennaro Gattuso.
Rino had already shown at Milan that he was capable of wrestling good results out of a chaotic club and confused squad, taking them to the Coppa Italia Final and within a point of Champions League qualification. We’ve all seen how they have fared without him. De Laurentiis called Gattuso “a warrior” and that description was so often used during his playing career, too. It became this cliché that he was all grit and no quality, the brawn without brains, but people didn’t realise what underpinned all that aggression and fire was his soul. That is a unifying force drawing Napoli back together.
Much like his playing days, Rino’s brain is underestimated. When Gattuso took over on December 11, they won three and lost three of his first six games. Even so, the signs were there that the 4-3-3 certainly suits the Partenopei more than his old mentor Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 ever did. Since then, they have won seven, drawn two and lost one. They are undefeated in six and have beaten the likes of Inter, Juventus and Lazio in his tenure, showing that can certainly step up for big games.
The 4-3-3 was like going back to basics for Napoli. Of course, those foundations were put in place by Maurizio Sarri, the man Gattuso has to beat in the Coppa Italia Final. Gattuso confessed many times to studying Sarri’s Napoli long before he took over this squad, but that doesn’t mean he’s a carbon copy. In a way, neither of these teams are really Sarriball – one isn’t fully formed yet, and the other has already evolved into a different beast.
What Rino has brought is more defensive solidity, aided by the fact Kalidou Koulibaly finally seems back to his best after that long injury lay-off. This Napoli is hard to beat, fights back when things go wrong and knows how to soak up pressure rather than just keep sterile possession. It has the thing that Sarri’s Juventus above all seem to lack: a change of pace. The Bianconeri seem to have no control over the tempo or momentum of their performances, whereas Napoli proved once again with Inter they know precisely when to sit back and when to strike.
There are going to be changes, because David Ospina is suspended after picking up a yellow card for time-wasting, so Alex Meret steps in, having made just three appearances in 2020, conceding seven goals. Ospina’s form has not been impeccable, his hot and cold games were typified in the semi-final where he conceded directly from a corner, but then beautifully distributed the ball that set up the equaliser. Meret is nowhere near as strong with his feet as the Colombian, so for a team that tries to play out from the back, it’s an angle Juventus can target.
If Napoli can come away with a victory in the Coppa Italia, it will be quite an incredible turnaround from all involved. The retreat, no retreat business under Ancelotti was a disaster, the troops were in revolt and the entire situation deteriorated, as a stodgy brand of football saw defeat after defeat. Now, they are back to being the Napoli people identify with, playing a slick and attractive brand of football, only now with a little more steel and a little less panache. To win their first trophy in six years would be an incredible way to kick-start the rest of this campaign.