Unable to match the financial prowess of Serie A’s serial winners, Juventus, as well as many of the other sides around them, Napoli have had to draw on resources from elsewhere in their valiant attempt to bridge the gap.
Kalidou Koulibaly’s towering header in Turin, which saw Partenopei defeat Old Lady for the first time at the Juventus stadium, epitomised how they have been able to challenge Massimiliano Allegri’s side this season, and provided a moment to savour amidst their end of season burnout.
It’s been a disappointing end to a league campaign full of highs, as Maurizio Sarri’s methods have worked wonders to enable the club to reach such heights, but then suffered towards the end due to this demanding style of play.
However, it’s questionable as to whether they would have even been able to challenge at the top if it weren’t for the relentless style Sarri instils at the club, on and off the pitch.
Their league campaigns under the Bagnoli-born boss have been their most successful since the late 80s and early 90s, when they miraculously won the league title twice thanks to the impact of Diego Maradona.
Sarri is the only manager to have taken the club beyond 80 points in the league, and he’s now done this in all three of his seasons in charge, as well as producing the three highest win percentages in the club’s history.
While his style is considered easy on the eye, entertaining, and up there with the best on the continent, the numbers show that it’s also effective.
Together, the Napoli supporters and their manager provide the perfect storm, drawing on intangibles which can make all the difference in football’s marginal moments.
The team were followed by their fans at every turn when they made their way north to face Juve, with hordes of followers wishing them luck as they departed. The Napoli faithful did their best to make it a home game away from home.
After the 1-0 defeat in the same fixture last season, the fans turned out in numbers to welcome their side home following a triumphant reverse scoreline.
This type of voracious support and fan culture can provide a team with an extra push which money can’t buy. Not that Sarri is too interested in spending money anyway.
The 59-year-old shuns the transfer market, preferring to work with the players he has, developing team unity, confidence, and togetherness which can be disrupted by new arrivals.
At his most compliant he is willing to leave the recruitment side of things to others.
“I don’t think about the transfer market. I hear from [sporting director Cristiano] Giuntoli every three days, and it doesn’t interest me. I like to coach the lads I have available. Giuntoli has always done well and he will continue to do so.
“To me, the 25 I have available to me are the strongest in Italy, and you’re talking about three players that are on the market, now we have an alternative who is training every day.
“Often expectations are higher than the actual value of the team. At Empoli, we had the lowest turnover, but were expected to reach safety.
“In Naples, a lot is expected, but we don’t have the highest turnover, so we have to work on the pitch to change things. We have the fifth-highest turnover in Italy, but we’ll work to put some teams [with more resources] behind us.”
Sarri has his work cut out as Allegri himself isn’t too shabby when it comes to the non-football side of things, and has continued to instil a winning mentality in the Juventus dressing room. The extra funds he has available means there are ambitions to challenge on all fronts, unlike Napoli who have struggled in cup competitions this season.
Prior to the victory in Turin, during which Juventus failed to register a shot on target for the first time at their new stadium, Napoli had also been struggling in the league as the season approached the final stretch.
A tired looking squad, running on fumes from Sarri’s cigarettes, were finding it difficult to cross the finish line against teams they needed to beat in order to maintain their challenge.
The likes of Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens, and Jose Callejon showed glimpses of their early season prowess, but lacked the cutting edge which had got them into attacking positions. Allan looked leggy, Jorginho needed help, and Insigne buzzed typically but unproductively.
A 4-2 defeat to Roma started a run of six games in which Napoli only won twice, drawing away to both Milan sides, and Sassuolo. But it could have been worse.
While the front line faltered, savours emerged from elsewhere in the squad to keep the dream alive.
Centre back Raul Albiol scored a 72nd minute winner at home to Genoa. Backup striker Arkadiusz Milik and 20-year-old midfielder Amadou Diawara scored in the final three minutes against Chievo. Albiol, Milik, and Lorenzo Tonelli secured a 4-2 win against Udinese after being 2-1 down, and Koulibaly rose majestically in the most important game of them all.
Each of these moments sparked wild celebrations mixed with relief. Most of these goals were not typical Sarrismo, but they were still a result of it.
If Napoli are to one day win the league again, they will have to do so the hard way, but there is no other way to do it for a team which isn’t Juventus. Even though Juve have gone on to secure a seventh straight Scudetto, Sarri’s side deserve credit for creating the only late season interest at the top of one of Europe’s big five leagues.
Some may look back on the celebrations of late goals, the scenes in the Juventus Stadium caused by Koulibaly, and the triumphant welcome home which ensued in Naples as reasons to be embarrassed after not quite managing to complete the job, but Napoli should remember these moments for what they were.
They shouldn’t be diminished by finishing runners-up with their highest ever points tally, and as with all the other intangibles they will need to break Juventus’ Serie A stranglehold, these moments should be used to spur them on in the future in their quest for glory.
In context, and looking at the bigger picture, it’s still a remarkable season for Napoli. This is a side which went bankrupt and were relegated to Serie C just 14 years ago, and are now putting up their best league performances since their two league wins in the late 80s.
Sarrrismo may have its faults, but it has the club challenging at the top once again and has built a platform for the future. Though the current season may feel like a failure, especially after the club sat atop the league table until round 27, in reality, it’s far from it.