In a Championship winning season, a team can usually look back and single out a match as the defining moment of their campaign. One game that they can regard as the juncture at which they felt it was their destiny, that it was written in the stars.
For Napoli that date could well prove to be last Friday 13th, an unlucky day for some but perhaps not for them.
The visitors? Juventus: a club from the rich and prosperous North, a rival for which there is unbridled hatred in Naples; a region with a lot of poverty and a lack of prosperity.
The “Old Lady” may have sauntered into town on the back of eight straight wins and eight clean sheets to boot but she soon shuffled back out, head hung low, after being on the wrong side of a 5-1 demolition.
Following AC Milan’s 2-2 draw at Lecce, the result saw Luciano Spalletti’s side go nine points clear as we approach the halfway point in the season.
Juve Coach Max Allegri said before Christmas “No one can get close to extraordinary Napoli”.
His words appear to be ringing true even if they were a veiled attempt to pile pressure on I Partenopei, suggesting the title is theirs to lose.
In fact, if form is anything to go by, Napoli could well implode as the season enters into the final furlong - April
Yes, the Neopolitans have found themselves in similar positions before. In 2019 as the season neared its climax, they won away at Juve thanks to a single Kalidou Koulibaly goal. A goal that sent their fans into raptures and a real sense they had one hand on their first Scudetto in 28 years.
Instead, Napoli went into freefall, in April, as Juve powered past them to another title, finishing four points ahead.
Last season again proved all too familiar. After leading for the large part of the campaign, they slipped at the final hurdles again. Yep, you got it, in April, and finished third again, whilst Inter denied Juve a 10th consecutive league title.
So what’s different this season? After so many near misses on the title, the Board and the Coaching Staff have very much decided it’s out with the old and in with the new.
Out went Koulibaly, as he was allowed to join Chelsea, Fabian Ruiz to PSG and Lorenzo Insigne went out to pasture in the MLS. Dries Mertens, meanwhile, was unceremoniously dumped by no-nonsense Club President Aurelio De Laurentiis, despite the player wanting to see out the remaining year of his contract.
In came Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, a winger from Dinamo Batumi for €10 million and Kim Min Jae: an €18 million replacement for Koulibaly. The other additions were three season-long loanees in Tanguy Ndombele from Spurs, and Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone brought in from Sassuolo and Hellas Verona respectively. Dare we say it, two unfashionable clubs.
Club legends gone. Seemingly underwhelming signings in… seemingly.
The fans must have felt their title chances had passed them by as the new season began, that they wouldn’t be challengers anytime soon.
No catching Juve, no beating bitter rivals Roma and Lazio - is there anyone they don’t despise? - and no finishing as the top side in the South.
However, what the club had done during pre-season was in fact to rejuvenate, to assemble a younger, fresher team.
Spalletti’s promised “young and fun” new look side are more dynamic and direct in their play; a breath of fresh air in comparison to the more pedestrian football often seen in the Serie A. This style of play has likely been what has caught their opponents out.
Georgian winger Kvaratskhelia aka ‘Kava’ or even Kvaradona has been a revelation netting 21 G/A in 20 games in all competitions. Meanwhile, Kim Min Jae has ensured no one is missing Koulibaly
Napoli’s main marksman Victor Osimhen has also been consistently chipping in with the team’s goal tally and should continue to do so if they can keep him fit. However, he is even arguably overachieving. The Nigerian Forward has scored 13 league goals already this season despite only having 9.14xG (expected goals).
Napoli is a club that has had more than its fair share of downs with spatterings of ups. They are the fifth most valuable club in the country and fourth best supported but despite being a big noise in Italian football, their 97-year history has produced just two Scudetti and one European Trophy in 1989 as well as a handful of domestic cups - Trophies delivered to them in the era of the mercurial talent that was Diego Maradona.
In fact, after his departure, they suffered several relegations and financial difficulties such that the club had to be re-founded in 2004 by Aurelio De Laurentiis. However, De Laurentiis’ business acumen, particularly in the Transfer Market, buying relatively cheap down the years and moving on players for big profits, has put the club on a sound and competitive footing.
Although it's 30 years since Maradona left, he still represents the one little purple patch in Napoli’s history.
Their homage to him is undeniable as well as unquestionable. Since his passing, the stadium has been renamed in his honour and his face adorned their shirts, before a legal dispute and subsequent ban stopped them from doing so.
“ ‘O Surdato Nnammurato”: a Neopolitan song often belted out by the fans, is about a First World War soldier who pines for his love whilst fighting on the frontline.
Their team meanwhile, continues to battle for that elusive Scudetto, whilst missing their beloved Diego. And if they win it? Then maybe, and it is a maybe, they can begin to move on and have a new hero to love.
© Joe Davison | The Aftermatch 2023