Napoli party like it’s 1988

The last time Napoli won at the Olimpico in Turin against Juventus was on a cold November day in 1988. Diego Maradona and Ciro Ferrara were wearing Azzurro, as Napoli romped their way to a famous 5-3 victory that is still spoken about today in the unofficial capital of southern Italy.

Fabio Cannavaro, another of Napoli’s favourite sons, wasn’t yet old enough to play for the first team then. He was still serving out his apprenticeship as a ball boy at the San Paolo. However, that game certainly did leave a lasting impression on him, as it did on all the Partenopei faithful.

It wasn’t good enough to win Napoli a second Scudetto. That would come the following year. Because the 1988-89 season belonged to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter dei record, a team inspired by two Germans who wrote a new page in calcio’s history books, making the Nerazzurri the highest points scoring team in the era of two points for a win.

Flash forward just over 20 years and it’s a bit like Groundhog Day. Napoli came back from 2-0 down to beat Juventus 3-2 at the Olimpico – this time with Ferrara and Cannavaro on the opposite touchline – and Inter stretched their lead at the top, making them clear favourites to equal arguably the most hallowed record in Italian football; that of Il Grande Torino, the team that won five straight Scudetti before the tragic air disaster at Superga in 1949.

However, let’s leave Inter aside, for as November begins, it’s perhaps only right that Napoli are crowned kings of October. The Partenopei have won three and drawn one of their last four games, which, as La Gazzetta dello Sport pointed out on Sunday, is the form of a Scudetto winning side.

The man behind their resurgence is Walter Mazzarri, the Tuscan tactician, who proved he could turn any team around when he kept little Reggina in Serie A despite a 15-point penalty – later reduced to 11 – that was imposed on the humble Calabrian outfit after the Calciopoli scandal in 2006.

When the 48-year-old replaced Roberto Donadoni on October 6, he took over a team in turmoil. Despite spending €49.7m on six new players in the summer, Napoli won just two of their opening seven games in Serie A. Pierpaolo Marino, the club’s long-time director of sport, was sacked live on TV by Aurelio De Laurentiis after the Partenopei beat Siena 2-1 on September 27.

The dead man walking that was Donadoni then blamed Marino for buying players that didn’t suit his system, implying that he had to stick with the underperforming and some would say outdated 3-5-2 system he inherited from his predecessor Edy Reja.

That excuse simply didn’t wash with the movie mogul and increasingly diva-like De Laurentiis who had by now resumed his old habit of appearing in the dressing room before, during and after games; remember De Laurentiis is the man who once came down from the stands at the San Paolo to tell Reja that he would have “laid his hands” on him if he weren’t so old. Reja is 64 and led Napoli from the Third Division back to the top flight.

Donadoni got the boot after Napoli lost to a Totti-inspired Roma a week later just six months after taking charge of the Partenopei. He quickly went on the offensive, telling La Gazzetta dello Sport: “De Laurentiis is a volcano… Someone who knows very little about our world… I said to him that if he were to ask me three questions about cinema I wouldn’t know how to respond and vice-versa if I were to pose him three about football.”

The feeling was mutual. At the official unveiling of his new coach, De Laurentiis said: “Mazzarri is the most pondered, desired, wanted and above all the right choice for Napoli at this moment in time. Actually we are late in hiring him by a year and a half.”

Having spent a year with Napoli as an assistant to Renzo Ulivieri during the 1998-99 season, Mazzarri soon showed an acute appreciation of what the fans required of him. “For me Napoli is a real accomplishment, it’s comparable with the other teams that are at the top of the Italian game… I know the city and the passion of the fans,” he said.

The appointment came at an opportune time. Serie A halted as the World Cup qualifiers took precedence, allowing Mazzarri time to prepare for his first game against Bologna. His plans looked likely to be scuppered when Ezequiel Lavezzi lost his passport returning from Argentina. De Laurentiis said he was sick of “careless Argentines”, but Mazzarri took a pragmatic view and included him in his squad straight away.

It paid dividends. Napoli changed from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-3 and defeated Bologna with a little help from Lavezzi in injury time. The following week they ended Fiorentina’s unbeaten home record, winning two minutes from time. Then came Milan, who took a 2-0 lead only to be held to a 2-2 draw thanks to goals from Luca Cigarini and German Denis in the 90th and 93rd minutes. Saturday’s victory over Juventus remains the pick of the bunch, though, as Marek Hamsik’s 81st minute winner serves to reiterate Napoli’s new never say die attitude.

A record of ten points from the twelve available to Mazzarri is impressive in itself, but more so, has been his ability to get the best out of signings who many pundits had written off as flops like Denis, Cigarini and Datolo who was quite sensational in Turin.

Asked if Mazzarri is his Jose Mourinho following Saturday’s game, De Laurentiis replied: “No, he’s far better than the Inter trainer. He beats him 10-1.” We’ll have to wait and see about that, although Mazzarri has already earned such good results against Milan and Juventus that his Napoli side are now perhaps prematurely being billed as the new ‘Anti-Inter’.

Talking Points

  • Antonio Cassano hit back at Sampdoria fans after they jeered him following the Blucerchiati’s disappointing stalemate with newly promoted Bari. “We are in joint second place with Juventus, Inter are a step above and frankly in their own league. Maybe the people who have become a little too accustomed to eating Nutella have to eat a little bit of shit,” Cassano said before threatening to leave Samp.
  • Inter strode off into the distance, beating Livorno 2-0 and thereby taking advantage of Juventus and Sampdoria’s failings. The Nerazzurri are now seven points clear after just eleven games this season and Jose Mourinho believes his side have yet to realise their potential. “The team is doing pretty well, but like everyone we have to deal with injuries. There are some physical problems that are slowing our work down,” the Special One complained.
  • Juventus President Jean-Claude Blanc told journalists he has “full trust” in Ciro Ferrara but warned the rookie coach that he can’t make any more mistakes. The Bianconeri spent €55.3m in the summer and were expected to offer Inter a stiffer challenge at the top of Serie A. “Our faith in Ciro hasn’t changed. The true Juventus isn’t that of Saturday evening, but the other seen against Sampdoria a few days ago,” Blanc explained.
  • Mirko Vucinic got a considerable monkey off his back and scored his first goal in Serie A this season, bagging the equaliser after Roma went 1-0 down at home to lowly Bologna. The Giallorossi showed real character and rallied to win 2-1, ending a three game losing streak.
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