“We cannot compare ourselves to Juventus,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said after watching his side dispatch Bologna in late-January to maintain their one-point lead at the top of the Serie A table. “They are clearly superior in every way.”
“Juve win 90 per cent of their matches. Our aim is to play beautifully. We like playing good football, enjoying ourselves and entertaining.”
In that regard, Sarri’s men are achieving their aim. With their now trademark brand of positional play, utilising intricate combinations and astute movement to move the ball through midfield and carve scoring opportunities almost at will, there is no team in Europe easier on the eye than Napoli.
But the Serie A leaders, with only one league defeat blotting their copybook thus far in 2017/18, are providing substance in bucketloads to compliment their unique style.
In downplaying his side’s hopes of unseating Juventus, who have won the last six Scudetti, Sarri is adhering to the age-old unspoken managerial code of always asserting underdog status. But the longer Napoli‘s impressive run continues, the more difficult that stance will be to believe; they are top of Serie A with more than half of the season played, and deservedly so.
The side Sarri has constructed over the last two and a half years, since taking the reins from Rafa Benítez at the San Paolo, is the envy of Europe, with several of his stars courted by the continents established elite; top-scorer Dries Mertens, local hero Lorenzo Insigne, playmaker Jorginho and central defender Kalidou Koulibaly have all been linked with big-money moves to the Premier League over the last 12 months.
The 59-year-old coach, a former bank manager with no playing background to speak of, has instilled a die-hard team ethic within his charges, a necessary requirement for a side who aim to press so intensely when out of possession. Though littered with stars, no Napoli player appears to consider himself more important than any team-mate, with each fulfilling a defined, specific role; all cogs must work together to make the machine run smoothly.
Mertens grabs most of the headlines. The star striker, a late bloomer at 30, converted from a wide role to fill the void left by Gonzalo Higuaín’s defection to Juventus and Arkadiuz Milik’s injury struggles, is a fast, intelligent and technically gifted forward capable of the spectacular.
Others, like midfield driving force and captain Marek Hamšík, pass master Jorginho and the imminently skilful Insigne catch the eye, too. But the supporting cast are just as important. Without Allan’s tireless running in midfield, without Elseid Hysaj’s dependability at right-back and Pepe Reina’s experience in goal, Napoli would not tick.
And tick they do, like an unerring metronome, setting a consistent tempo with the tap-tap of crisply fizzed passes. Indeed, Napoli’s averages of 59.6 per cent possession and 87.9 per cent pass accuracy are the highest in Serie A.
Even more impressive, and evidence of their rapid, expert ball circulation, is their 715.4 passes per game average, a figure only Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City (730) can better in Europe’s five major leagues this season – La Liga leaders Barcelona, the club most associated with tiki-taka passing combinations, average 646 passes per game, while Paris Saint-Germain (669.5) and Bayern Munich (644.6) both trail in Napoli’s wake, too.
Much to Sarri’s chagrin, Napoli have been unable to translate their fine form beyond their Serie A obligations this season, crashing out of the Champions League at the group stage and falling to Atalanta in the Coppa Italia before Christmas.
But the Partenopei‘s resultant eased fixture list, despite still having the Europa League to contend with, could act a as a blessing in disguise, allowed them to focus wholeheartedly on becoming champions of Italy for the first time since a certain Diego Armando Maradona led them to the Scudetto in the 1989/90 season.
There’s a long way to go yet, though, with 16 league games remaining, including what will surely be a crucial fixture away to Juventus in late April, not to mention the potential banana skins of trips to take on both Milanese sides, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.
But Napoli have already demonstrated the consistency to sustain a title push and the mettle to win even when playing below par, key tenets of any successful league campaign.
If championships were decided by style points, Napoli’s Serie A lead would already be unassailable. Juventus won’t relent in there efforts to defend there supremacy, but this might just be Napoli’s year.