Napoli is elected champion, but does the lack of competition take the shine away? | series A

TStadio Carlo Castellani held some unhappy recent memories for Napoli. It was here that the title race unfolded last April, when a 2-0 lead over Empoli in the 80th minute turned into a 3-2 defeat. when goalkeeper Alex Meret lost possession and allowed Andrea Pinamonti to block an attempted shot straight into the net.

Could they self-destruct a second time? They held an identical 2-0 lead on Sunday when Mário Rui received a scoreless red card, kicking out at Francesco Caputo. Rather than falter, Napoli became even more dominant in the one-man defeat, enjoying a solid five-minute stretch in the last quarter of an hour when they did not allow Empoli to touch outside their own half.

Such is the dominance of the elected Serie A champions. Even in Italy’s most superstitious city, it no longer seems dangerous to define them as such. With Internazionale losing away to Bologna on Sunday, Napoli are now 18 points clear at the top.

They lost once all season against nerazzurri in their first game after the World Cup break. Since then, they have racked up eight consecutive league wins – scoring 21 goals and conceding just two. There was a surprising slip-up in Coppa Italia, with Napoli going out on penalties to Serie A bottom Cremonese, but they had switched all 10 starters.

How does a team that hasn’t won the championship in 33 years find itself in a position where ending the drought seems like a formality at the end of February? Napoli were hardly pre-season favourites.

Luciano Spalletti reminded journalists at a press conference last week that many of them had suggested that his team should finish outside the top four, but his team’s supporters did not feel confident. One interrupted his attempt to introduce the cast at an event in July, yelling at him to “wake up!”

The coach had been acknowledging the departures of captain Lorenzo Insigne, vice-captain Kalidou Koulibaly and top scorer Dries Mertens in a single transfer window. Now Spalletti has responded to his provocation, raising his voice as he insists: “Others have arrived, bringing with them a new enthusiasm. And more will come.”

New faces really played their part. The signing of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia from Dinamo Batumi for just over €10m was possibly the best deal made by any club in Europe last year. His 10 league goals and nine assists only tell part of the story, leaving out how he unbalances defenses with two-footed passes and hip dribbling. Only Rafael Leão has beaten his man more often in Série A this season.

Luciano Spalletti (right) is the architect behind a massive title hit, requiring hard work to the end. Photography: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

Kim Min-Jae has also been colossal, signing for less than half of what Chelsea paid for Koulibaly and delivering even more consistency at centre-back. Other summer signings such as Giacomo Raspadori, Giovanni Simeone and Mathías Olivera contributed regularly from the bench.

However, nine of the players who started against Empoli were already on the rosters last year. This was practically Spalletti’s strongest team, the most common variations being the exchange of Hirving Lozano for Matteo Politano (another returning player) at right wing and Mário Rui for Olivera at left back on European nights.

The real reasons for Napoli to run away with the Scudetto are twofold. The most obvious one to point out is the lack of competition. No other team is on course to finish with more than 74 points. Last season’s champions Milan suffered a disastrous swing in the new year that saw them lose 13 in five games. Inter don’t seem to know if they are the team that beat Napoli earlier this year and Porto midweek or the one that narrowly lost to Bologna at the weekend. Juventus, even without the 15-point deduction, would be no closer to top spot than the other two.

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That lack of a domestic rival has led many to question just how good Napoli really are. Champions League nights continue to provide answers. After defeating Liverpool, Ajax and Rangers in the group stage, Spalletti’s side made short work of Eintracht Frankfurt in the Round of 16 away leg. A 2-0 lead puts them on course to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in the club’s history.

The biggest part of that puzzle is simply that the team has improved under Spalletti. There is a measure of good luck. Victor Osimhen has missed 39 games through illness and injury over the past two seasons, but just six so far this campaign and none since early October. When fit, he can be one of the best strikers on the planet. He scored in eight consecutive league games and opened the scoring in Frankfurt.

More than anything though, the Napoli players have embraced Spalletti’s training, adapting to a selfless and responsive style of play. On the surface, his team looks pretty predictable, lining up almost always in the same 4-3-3, but his approach to each game is shaped by the opposition, the emphasis shifting to exploiting spaces as they appear.

Players are empowered to take risks and trust their judgment because they know they have teammates to back them up. Football analytics website Ultimo Uomo cited data from Statsbomb last week showing that only two players in all of Serie A have lost possession more often this season than Kvaratskhelia, but also that Napoli have won the ball back from opponents in final third more than any other. another team.

Spalletti shone on Sunday as he recalled a moment from his team’s previous win away to Sassuolo. “We lost the ball in a corner,” he said. “What happened next, I’ve never seen anything like it in 25 years as a manager. 10 players in a frenzy, all racing to gain ground and get behind the ball… that’s when you realize you have a team that is solid as a rock, that doesn’t want to give up anything.”

The footage of that moment is incredible, Osimhen arriving in a makeshift left-back position as the entire Napoli team races full steam ahead to fill in the gaps. Sometimes, of course, they still need a little help from the outside. Against Empoli, Spalletti stole the spotlight when the pitch microphones caught him shouting at Kvaratskhelia in Broken English after the Georgian veered offside.

#Spalletti: “Contro il #Sassuolo noi perdiamo palla su un angolo, ed in 25 anni non avevo mai visto gol una cosa del genere. Vedere dieci assatanati riportarsi dietro la linea difensiva per non prendere gol”.#Napoli #SassuoloNapoli

— Luca Paesano (@LucaPaesano5) February 26, 2023


All the time, his only grievances were with Rui for that unnecessary red card. Napoli took the lead on an own goal, Ardian Ismajli deflecting Piotr Zielinski’s cross into their own net, and were leading 2-0 in the 28th minute when Osimhen pounced on the rebound after Guglielmo Vicario saved Kvaratskhelia’s kick-off outside from the cashier. At no point did they really seem to concede. “The players know we have a really important opportunity,” Spalletti said of the full-time Scudetto. “They need to do this for the fans. For your people.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario now where they wouldn’t make it, the only real question now is whether they’ll cross the line in April or May. At the very least, the fear is that this monumental achievement, Napoli’s third Serie A title and first since Diego Maradona left the club, could feel anticlimactic without a rival pushing them.

From the life-size cutouts of their starting XI that materialized in the Spanish Quarter this weekend to the street vendors already selling flags emblazoned with the number three and the pizza makers dragging out a special Scudetto recipe in interviews in national newspapers, the people of Naples is already gearing up to ensure that a team and a city receive the celebration they deserve.

Milan 2-0 Atalanta, Udinese 2-2 Spezia, Salernitana 3-0 Monza, Bologna 1-0 Inter, Lecce 0-1 Sassuolo, Empoli 0-2 Napoli

Monday Verona v Fiorentina, Lazio v Sampdoria
Tuesday Cremonese v Roma, Juventus v Torino


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