Recent history is propelling Napoli, as is the leadership of Maurizio Sarri and goals of Gonzalo Higuain. Luca Cetta asks if the pair can take Napoli to a long-awaited Scudetto, or can Juventus or Inter spoil the party?
Founder of Naples’ most read daily, Il Mattino, Greek-Italian journalist Matilde Serao understood the Neapolitan psyche. On the capital of Italian superstition, she said: “The various superstitions from all over the world come together in Naples where they are then magnified and multiplied.”
Maurizio Sarri is wary of reading much into Napoli’s current situation, but the omens are looking good. Led by the goals of Gonzalo Higuain, three successive victories over the Christmas and New Year period had the Partenopei staring down the rest of Serie A at the halfway point of the campaign. Not since 1989-90, the season of their last Scudetto, have Napoli claimed the title of Winter Champions. 69% of ice kings go on to secure the ultimate prize. This includes the last 12.
Fifth last season after a disappointing campaign under Rafa Benitez, Naples-born Sarri – himself a superstitious type, “I am very superstitious, which is inevitable for a job where a ball hitting a post at a certain angle can change your life” – has orchestrated the turnaround. He found a squad lacking in confidence, but is well-liked for his effective man-management techniques.
In preparing for each match, Sarri likes to gauge the mood within the camp. “It depends on how I perceive the spirit within the group,” he said last November. “The most important thing is to create confidence in themselves and each other.” For Sarri, a Coach must not only be a tactician, but at times “he has to be brother, friend or father figure.”
Sarri leads a squad which is enjoying its football. And the results are telling. According to online betting tips from online-betting.me.uk, they’ve won 13 times and lost just twice in 20 matches. In the Europa League, six wins from six. Napoli are also Serie A’s leading scorers with 41 goals.
Nowhere is this Sarri-inspired confidence more pronounced than in Higuain. The Argentine is Serie A’s leading scorer with 20 goals in as many matches – bettering last season’s total, 18, in half the time. The peninsula’s deadliest striker is nine clear of Sampdoria’s Eder. It also highlights the importance of the 28-year-old to Napoli’s Scudetto charge. He’s just one of eight Azzurri players to have scored, but the other seven have only equalled Higuain’s total.
Sarri has warned the rest of Serie A that Higuain can further improve, while the striker firmly believes his influence has aided this golden run. “I have confidence thanks to the Coach, my teammates and the club. Sarri has a lot to do with my form, a lot. I thank him and just want to maintain this form.”
Not that the Sarri is thinking of the Scudetto, in keeping with his beliefs. He’s called it a ‘swear word’ and maintains Juventus are favourites. That prompted a response from Bianconeri defender Leonardo Bonucci, claiming a Sarri mind-game. “I couldn’t care less,” thundered the tactician, insisting Juve are better positioned.
Juventus started slowly and were seemingly on the outside looking in, but have roared into contention following 10 successive victories. Massimiliano Allegri’s side now seriously believe in an historic fifth consecutive Scudetto. Inter made the early running but have stuttered in the past month. Still, Juve are only two points adrift and Inter two further back, the Nerazzurri indebted to goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. Napoli’s trip to Turin on February 13 will be a pivotal showdown.
There’s little to separate the main contenders, which will make for a thrilling finale. And you can play Italian fantasy football on Euro Fantasy League as Napoli aim to put the superstitions aside and finally restitch the Scudetto to their shirts.
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