Napoli gained admirers all over Europe for their fluid, attacking football but, as Gaby McKay explains, it’s time to win something
The refrain coming out of the San Paolo has been a consistent one this summer. From President Aurelio De Laurentiis to players like Marek Hamsik, Kalidou Koulibaly and Piotr Zielinski, countless statements have emerged with some variation on the phrase “Lo scudetto non è più un tabù” - the Scudetto isn’t a taboo word anymore.
In previous seasons the Partenopei were the plucky upstarts, dreaming of the title, aiming for it, yes, but never truly expecting they could win their first Scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona.
Powered by the goals of Gonzalo Higuain, Maurizio Sarri’s debut season saw the Neapolitans leading Serie A in February, before they felt the icy hand of Juventus on their shoulder. The Bianconeri ultimately secured the title with three games to spare.
Last season Napoli played the best football in Italy, but a sticky spell in October and November ultimately saw them finish third, despite setting a club record points total of 86.
The campaign ended with Sarri’s men dropping just four points in their final 12 games, scoring 16 goals in the last four matches. Had the campaign lasted for a further five or six weeks, who knows where the Vesuviani could have finished? It didn’t though, and Juve took the Scudetto once again.
By any measure, Napoli had a great season in 2016-17. They set a club record for points, they scored 94 Serie A goals and they thrilled fans with their attacking football. A great season by any measure, except of course the one which matters most - trophies.
Having progressed season-by-season, the Partenopei squad resolved to stay together this summer. Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne signed new contracts, Arkadiusz Milik will have a full pre-season under his belt and Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record. This team is at the peak of its powers, and the players know that this is the time to finally bring the title back to Naples. Lo scudetto non è più un tabù.
Given the oft-reported “Scudetto pact” among the squad, it’s been a summer of evolution rather than revolution at the San Paolo. While last summer brought the headache of replacing Higuain, who moved north to Turin for a Serie A record €90m fee, Napoli can pretty much pick up where they left off last season.
French-Algerian winger Adam Ounas has arrived from Bordeaux, and looked dangerous in pre-season friendlies before an ankle injury inflicted on him by Diego Godin - a dangerous player of a rather different sort.
Sarri therefore has the luxury of starting the season with players well-drilled in his system, who know how to play together and who are high on confidence after a stellar end to last term.
Napoli got off to a slow start in their first campaign under the former bank clerk, and Milik’s injury derailed them before the winter break. If the past six seasons have shown anything, it’s that Juventus will pounce on any shaky form from their rivals, so it’s essential that the Partenopei lay down a marker early.
With Verona, a much-changed Atalanta, Bologna and Benevento in the first four weeks, Napoli could conceivably begin the season with 12 points out of 12 before they head to Lazio in Week 5.
That said, with a Champions League play-off against Nice to be negotiated, the pressure will be on right from the start, not least from an expectant San Paolo crowd.
It also remains the case that Napoli are battling comparative financial juggernauts, even more so now Milan and Inter are backed by Chinese money. Juventus’ €341m revenue in 2016 was just enough to crack Deloitte’s top 10, though it dwarfs the €143m generated by their Neapolitan rivals. Roma and the Milan clubs also boast higher revenues.
Football isn’t played on the balance sheet though, and the Scudetto is a serious and realistic possibility for Napoli.
The Champions League is probably still a bridge too far, at least this season, and while a third Coppa Italia in six years would be nothing to be sniffed at, Neapolitan eyes are on the big prize.
This season the taboo has become the target, and Sarri’s men have all the weapons to deliver it.
They may not have the budget of Juventus, but make no mistake: Napoli are going for the Scudetto this year. The Partenopei haven’t lost in Serie A since February 25, and won their last five matches of 2016-17 in thrilling fashion. If they can hit the ground running, they’ll be confident of a first title since 1990. Sarri’s side must negotiate a Champions League play-off, but are looking to improve on last year’s Round of 16.
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