After another impressive display by Kalidou Koulibaly in the 3-0 over Young Boys in the Europa league, the compliment one Napoli fan paid him after the Roma game became even more of a truism. “He is like a bronzed Ruud Krol,” tweeted the tifoso after watching the Frenchman take care of business against the Giallorossi. A compliment indeed as the world-class Dutch international shone for the Partenopei in the early 1980s and for many older Vesuviani, was the supreme defender.
In Saturday’s 2-0 win, goalscorers Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon were two of the stars but the San Paolo knew who the real hero was. Kalidou was totally dominant everywhere on the pitch, dynamiting any advances, intercepting danger and stamping his 6’6” physicality on the game.
Winning many an outlet’s Man of the Match award, the centre-back contained the Giallorossi forwards with ease. Comfortable on the ball, he passed with both right and left feet, imposed himself on the play, set up several counter-attacks, assisted on the second goal and recovered possession 33 times along with a pass accuracy of 88.6 per cent.
The 23-year-old took many back to the days of Ciro Ferrara, Fabio Cannavaro, Krol himself and Koulibaly’s own hero, former Parma and Juventus star Lilian Thuram, such was his alertness, anticipation and assurance. Every time he faced up to a sensitive interception perhaps a little voice somewhere in his subconscious said: ‘Remember Thuram, 1998’.
Certainly for the No 26, defenders do not come more supreme than his fellow countryman, who won the 1998 World Cup, spent 10 years in Serie A, won two Scudetti, a UEFA Cup and many domestic Cups. “He is the player who inspired me,” he said. “He gave me a lot of joy and I remember what he won and how he played. I hope to develop here at Napoli and reach the levels he did.”
The art of defending is now a different world from the days of Thuram, when Italian-based stoppers were principally defensively-trained. Today’s players are coached in another direction, leaning towards the more technical aspects, yet Koulibaly seems to blend both approaches in his game and still comes out on top.
Plainly the rule changes have contributed, while constraints on tackling have also made it tougher for defenders, but it is not that Koulibaly seems inhibited. It’s rare to see him yield to the opposition, struggle at crosses, get fooled at set-pieces or misled on one-on-ones and it shows that all the basic tenets of defending are firmly locked in.
He is whipcord tough, has an obdurate will and firmly believes in his destiny to conquer all obstacles. “Benitez had called to take me to Napoli as early as January, but to no avail,” he said. “I didn’t think that Napoli would wait another six months, but we kept in touch and eventually began to negotiate the deal in June. I’m glad I chose Napoli. Benitez is a great Coach to work with, a great man and I’m growing a lot under him.”
He started making his name in pre-season training and during the friendly win over Barcelona, showed all his potential and also stood out in the following friendly with Paris Saint-Germain. In the Champions League play-off defeat against Athletic Bilbao he was one of the very few to shine.
Since his League debut in the win over Genoa he has played in every Serie A game and apart from hiccups in the defeats by Chievo and Udinese he has been outstanding. He also scored his first goal against Palermo and, including that game, Napoli have lost just one of the last 10 played.
Such have been his performances that France’s national Coach Didier Deschamps has had the Under-21 star watched and he and the Napoli fans are not the only ones who have admired his progress. Recent reports claim both Bayern Munich and Manchester United have noticed the Napoli’s man mountain’s maturity.
Of course a lot of that development is down to Coach Rafa Bentitez, who has helped Koulibaly grow from an almost unknown to a name bandied about in the boardrooms of the rich and famous, just like Krol and Thuram before him.