Coppa Italia: Quarter-Finals / Team rating: 9 / Top scorer: Higuain (36)
Europe: Europa League Round of 32
Eyebrows were raised when Napoli announced the new man in charge, but Maurizio Sarri then went onto silence each of his doubters in style, writes Paul Hill.
“I respect Maurizio Sarri but he is not the right Coach for Napoli,” exclaimed a fed up Diego Maradona. Three games had passed in the 2015-16 Serie A campaign and the new boss had endured a terrible start to his Partenopei career, picking up two points out of a possible nine. Maradona then promptly stuck the boot in further by expressing a fear that the club were set for a relegation battle. How wrong he turned out to be.
Fast forward eight months and the former Empoli manager has guided Napoli to one of the finest ever campaigns, records being broken with ease. On top of the Gonzalo Higuain astonishing goal feat, Napoli club registered their greatest ever points tally for a Serie A season, one that included an eight game winning streak (another club record).
Supporters from Naples will be reluctant to celebrate so soon after the season’s conclusion knowing that the Scudetto was in sight two thirds into the campaign. But no one could have foreseen the astonishing form shown by Juventus, with the 79 points from a possible 84 an unprecedented amount and impossible to contend with.
A key takeaway from this campaign is how settled the club’s first XI has been. Adopting an easy on the eye 4-3-3 formation, each player fitted the Sarri jigsaw perfectly and worked in seamless harmony to create a hard-working, yet attractive side. Scoring five more than the champions and conceding nine fewer than third placed Roma, the Neapolitan manager found the perfect balance with the playing staff at his disposal.
Between the sticks, Pepe Reina was back to bring some stability off and on the pitch. His experience helped the centre-back pairing of Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol become one of the league’s most feared. Koulibaly in particular was the club’s (and possibly the league’s) most improved defender. Recent arrival Lorenzo Tonelli has an uneviable task attempting to break into the side next term.
Another solid pairing came in the form of the two dynamic full backs. Faouzi Ghoulam has been one of the Italian league’s most consistent for over 18 months now, with his aerial ability and decision making showing particular improvement under the tutelage of Sarri. Whilst Elseid Hysaj has shown maturity beyond his 22 years in what is his first season playing regularly for a traditionally big club.
In the middle, the stock of Allan, Jorginho and Marek Hamsik has risen considerably this term. The three have worked terrifically together to create a dynamic and efficient trident in both the attacking and defensive phases. Allan’s ball retention and all-round dogged style of play is a key part of his manager’s tactics, whilst his Brazilian-born counterpart Jorginho has been at his metronomic best at the heart of the Partenopei.
Meanwhile, playing slightly deeper than he is accustomed to, captain Marek Hamsik had a fruitful campaign with six goals and 11 assists. The Slovakian’s mentality also developed into that of a leader this term, with his influence and authority becoming more visible the longer the campaign went on.
Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne each had stellar seasons, with Insigne in particular finally evolving into the local hero the Naples supporters hoped he would become. The pair created 17 and found the net on 19 occasions between them this championship, acting as the perfect pair of foils and providers for their record breaking team-mate in the middle.
And what is there to say about the man who netted 36 goals in 35 outings? Higuain broke Gunnar Nordahl’s 66-year-old record, etching his name into the depths of Neapolitan and Italian folklore in the process. Sarri’s fast-flowing brand of Calcio and the ability of Insigne and Callejon to contribute in the defensive phases allowed the former Real Madrid man to concentrate on one thing- finding the net. The 27-year-old’s record-breaking acrobatic third goal in the final match will be replayed for decades to come.
Higuain though, is just one of a number of key cogs in a well-oiled Napoli machine that has experienced a fine campaign. There may not have been any additions to the trophy cabinet, but that is surely to come if Aurelio De Laurentiis can keep the nucleus of the side together. "I was wrong about Sarri, I ask for forgiveness,” stated an apologetic Maradona.
After more than two decades floating around a variety of provincial sides in the peninsula, the 57 year-old finally got his first big job in Italy. He then guided Napoli to one of its most accomplished campaigns in living memory whilst simultaneously playing the most attractive football in the league.
A career defining season. After a change in his dietary requirements following the advice of his new manager, the Argentina international broke the league’s goalscoring record in one of the great individual Serie A campaigns. The club will now make it their summer priority to keep hold of the striker.
- The points total of 82 was an all-time record for the club.
- Gonzalo Higuaín’s League goal total of 36 in 35 was also a club and Serie A record.
- Napoli’s eight consecutive wins between December and February is another with its place in the record books.
|26||D||Kalidou Koulibaly||32 (1)||0||0|
|31||D||Faouzi Gholam||32 (2)||0||3|
|3||D||Ivan Strinic||3 (2)||0||0|
|11||D||Christian Maggio||4 (4)||0||0|
|19||M||David Lopez||6 (19)||1||1|
|7||M||Jose Callejon||35 (3)||7||7|
|14||M||Dries Mertens||6 (27)||5||5|
|94||M||Nathaniel Chalobah||0 (5)||0||0|
|24||A||Lorenzo Insigne||34 (3)||12||10|
|23||A||Manolo Gabbiadini||4 (19)||5||3|
|77||A||Omar EL Kaddouri||0 (20)||1||2|