Can Maurizio Sarri and Napoli Finally Find a Way to Topple Juventus?

Adam Digby@@Adz77Featured ColumnistNovember 29, 2017

VERONA, ITALY - NOVEMBER 05:  Head coach Maurizio Sarri (L) of SSC Napoli looks on during the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and SSC Napoli at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on November 5, 2017 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)
Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

As he looked ahead to his side's titanic clash with Juventus on Friday, Marek Hamsik had no doubt about the magnitude of the game. "It will be a great night for calcio, they are one of the best teams in Italy," the Napoli captain told Sky Italia (h/t GianlucaDiMarzio.com). "It is like a derby and I hope it will be a great game."

The Partenopei are two points above second-place Inter Milan and four ahead of reigning champions Juve, sitting alone atop the Serie A table while also being the league's greatest entertainers. They remain undefeated and have been in simply spectacular form, routinely demolishing opponents as they bid to end the club's long wait for major silverware and winning over some surprising fans.

Pep Guardiola recently told Mediaset Premium (h/t FourFourTwo) that "they are perhaps the best side I've faced in my career," while Dani Alves went even further at the Gran Gala del Calcio event, citing the club's approach as a solution to help the game across the peninsula.

"I expect Italian football to change in general, also because of what happened with the national team," the Brazil international told Sky Italia (h/t Football Italia). "Everyone should take an example from Napoli, I really like them and the vision that Napoli have is useful for improving Calcio."

If there is one defining reason behind both the universal admiration and Napoli's excellent start to 2017/18, it is undoubtedly the impact of Maurizio Sarri. The coach arrived from Empoli just over two years ago and has instilled a wonderful philosophical and practical approach to the game, with the side now playing some truly breathtaking football as his approach demands.

According to figures provided by WhoScored.com, Napoli have enjoyed the most possession (60.6 per cent), boast the best pass completion rate (88.7 per cent) and take more shots (18.4) than any other side.

Yet their superiority has been evident at both ends of the field, as only one goalkeeper (AS Roma's Alisson Becker) has kept more clean sheets than Pepe Reina.

Napoli's opponents have managed just nine goals this term, with WhoScored noting that teams lining up against them manage only 8.1 shots per game—the lowest tally of any defence on the peninsula.

But to reduce the team's effectiveness to mere statistics is to do the team, and indeed Sarri, a huge disservice. Napoli are simply incredible to watch, willingly passing the ball out of trouble at the back, pushing forward in midfield and genuinely lethal in attack—their proactive and progressive style is captured perfectly in the video above.

Many observers are convinced they are witnessing history unfolding whenever they tune in to watch Napoli.

"Every 20 years there is an innovation in football," Fabio Capello said at the Football Leader Awards in June (h/t Football Italia). "After Ajax there was Arrigo Sacchi's Milan, then Pep Guardiola, who rather sent football to sleep. Fortunately now we've got Sarri, who can wake football up again."

Sacchi is in no doubt, either. "Sarri is the strength of the team; he is the director and author of the orchestra; all the players have improved under him," the former AC Milan boss told Marca (h/t ESPN FC) earlier this year. "When you see Sarri's teams play, you know how they train. He is a genius."

It is difficult to argue with that assessment when seeing how some of the decisions made by the 58-year-old have paid off. Having sold Gonzalo Higuain and with Arkadiusz Milik injured, it was Sarri who pushed Dries Mertens into a more central role, surprisingly utilising the Belgium star not as a "false nine" but as an out-and-out striker.

The form of the 5'7" flyer since that switch have been simply spectacular, with Mertens netting 34 goals in all competitions last term and already bagging 10 in just 14 league outings this season. Part of a team that is rarely rotated—he is one of five Napoli players to have appeared in every Serie A fixture in 2017/18—their familiarity has seen them progress to where it seems they are finally ready to compete for top honours.

"Napoli are playing the most exciting brand of football in Europe right now," BT Sport commentator Adam Summerton told Bleacher Report. "Their stability, continuity and quality makes them a serious threat to Juventus for the title."

In truth, that is what it will always come back to for the Partenopei. Only when Diego Maradona graced the Stadio San Paolo did they manage to topple the Old Lady, with Napoli's only Scudetto victories coming with the mercurial Argentinian leading the way.

Finding a way to do so against a Juventus who are breaking record after record will unquestionably be difficult. No team had ever won six consecutive Serie A titles before the Bianconeri did so last year, while their current run of three straight league-and-cup doubles had also never been done before.

However, they have struggled in recent months, as losses to both Lazio and Sampdoria gave the impression that perhaps Massimiliano Allegri's men are finally vulnerable. Yet they somehow still boast Italy's most prolific attack thanks to a return of 40 goals already this term, and one former captain is certainly not concerned about their form.

"Sometimes you go through a funnel then find a great big road," Alessandro Del Piero told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) recently. "It's not the first time Juve have limped in the autumn, but they have to be in form in the spring. That's why I still expect Juve to be the leading lights in Italy and Europe."

That viewpoint is set to be tested over the next three games. "Napoli, Olympiakos and Inter in one week their moment of truth?" Del Piero considered in that same interview. "Yes. Juve need a jolt like that."

Indeed, the Old Lady has raised her game when it matters most, holding Barcelona to a 0-0 draw while defeating Milan 2-0 at San Siro. There is little doubt that this huge clash will be another major test, with Napoli supporters almost certain to fill their Stadio San Paolo home.

The noise they make is deafening. Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (h/t Mark Jones of the Daily Mirror) noted the noise of 42,000 supporters chanting before a clash with Benfica last year actually caused seismic tremors in the local area.

It will be that kind of welcome awaiting Juventus on Friday, but the fans are now also expectant, believing their beloved team is ready to take the next step.

"I think this is the season when our mentality, which was our biggest hurdle, is finally strong," Napoli supporter Phil—the president of Napoli Club Philadelphia—told Bleacher Report. "The match at home against Atalanta was the perfect example: a goal down at half-time, we didn't panic and convincingly won 3-1. That confidence is going to help us be true title contenders."

Of course, the Bianconeri present a different challenge, but it is one Sarri and his team have spent over a year preparing for. What happens over the next 10 days might well define Juve's season, but events on Friday night could well decide whether Napoli truly are the challengers they appear to be.

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