There were serious question marks hanging over the arrival of coach Maurizio Sarri at Napoli, but they’ve already been dispelled just two months into this season.
Nobody gave Napoli a prayer of mounting a realistic Scudetto challenge this term following a turbulent summer which saw Rafa Benitez move on to Real Madrid and a host of players being linked with pastures new.
When unheralded boss Maurizio Sarri replaced Benitez at the San Paolo helm, the Azzurri were immediately placed as rank outsiders for a top-three finish.
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Sarri had only led Empoli within Serie A beforehand, while the majority of his coaching career had been spent in the lower echelons of Italian football.
Could the Neapolitan native spring a major shock and take Napoli to heights not seen since the days of Diego Maradona, or would the Azzurri fade into relative obscurity, as they had done in the late 90s onwards during an agonising period for the club?
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One of the biggest tasks facing the 56-year-old was to keep hold of his best players, many of whom were reportedly seeking the exit door.
Captain Marek Hamsik, forward Jose Callejon, star striker Gonzalo Higuain and wing wizard Dries Mertens all appeared on their way out.
Yet, with his calm approach and expansive ideas on how football should be played, Sarri managed to convince those star performers to remain.
Keeping them onside was vital, while opting to utilise Lorenzo Insigne as a ‘trequartista’ – or advanced playmaker – behind the forward line was a masterstroke.
In seven Serie A appearances, he has become the joint-top goalscorer on five goals, whilst providing a team-high three league assists.
Instead of a summer filled with upheaval through heavy turnover of playing staff, Napoli enjoyed a pre-season of assurance and solidarity within their ranks thanks entirely to the amiable Sarri.
SIGHTS SET ON GLORY
Napoli lie in 6th place after three victories and three draws from seven fixtures, with their only defeat coming against Sassuolo on the opening day.
Their attractive style of play and burgeoning confidence saw the Partenopei hit struggling AC Milan for four last time out, while they struck five goals apiece against Europa League foes Club Brugge and domestic rivals Lazio earlier in the campaign.
Sarri’s 4-3-1-2 formation has worked a treat, but they can also shift to 4-3-3 with Insigne employed as a wide forward, which showcases his squad’s versatility.
Next up is table-topping Fiorentina, who Napoli host on Sunday, thus providing a true acid test of their championship credentials.
Paulo Sousa’s men are on a roll, with six wins from seven games to their name. They have proved almost unstoppable thus far, but a trip to face the resurgent Azzurri will almost certainly be their toughest test to date.
Both sides like to get the ball down and play, whilst the duo have plundered 30 goals between them in league action so far.
It promises to be an exciting encounter, and one that will significantly add weight to Napoli’s claims for a title shot, should Sarri emerge victorious.
He may have been a surprise selection for the top job originally, but he can surely look forward to a long association with his hometown club on the back of their fabulous start.
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