While most will remember Diego Maradona in the iconic sky blue and white of Argentina, some might recall his time in Italy, where the Argentine magician wore a darker shade of blue. A symbol of hope for a suffering city, Maradona brought life to Naples, taking Napoli from near relegation to its first-ever Scudetto in 1987 and adding another in 1990. In the post-Maradona era, however, Italian football slipped back into its usual three-horse race between Juventus and the two great Milan clubs. Since 2002, only these three sides have shared the glory of Italian football, a period which included eight consecutive titles for Juventus. This season, however, the familiar script of Italian football has taken an unexpected twist with the renaissance of Napoli.
Napoli has had one of the best starts to a Serie A campaign in its history, 13 points clear at the top. The title is all but guaranteed; a new Italian champion will be crowned. But how did this team from Naples topple the sporting monopoly of the big three? The answer lies in their recruitment policy, playing style and experienced managerial leadership.
Last summer, many of Napoli’s star players left the club. Veteran wingers Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, 31 and 35 respectively, were top of this list. The club’s outstanding center back Kalidou Koulibaly followed with a move to Chelsea and 26-year-old Spanish midfielder Fabian Ruiz joined Paris Saint-Germain. The squad had lost the core that helped Napoli finish third last season. Their replacements weren’t the stars the fans wanted. Korean defender Kim Min-jae was brought in from Turkish side Fenerbahçe while a young winger named Khvicha Kvaratskheila was bought from Dinamo Batumi. It was clear that manager Luciano Spaletti was focused on the profile of his signings rather than their commercial value, an aspect of modern transfers that is almost never ignored. All in all, the squad’s average age fell and their wage bill was cut by 27%.
At the halfway point of the season, Kvaratskheila has become one of the most effective attackers in world football. His two-footed ability, directness and explosive speed has formed a dangerous strike partnership with Vitkor Osimen; the pair scored 24 goals this season. Osimen’s 16 goals top the Serie A charts while Kvara leads the assist tally with 9. Spaletti’s 4-3-3 system functions less on traditional positioning and more on adaptability. The midfielders, particularly Zielinski and Anguissa, patrol both ends of the field, sometimes helping progress the ball from deep in possession while also penetrating space left in behind Osimen. Kvara’s opposite winger is Hirving Lozano. The Mexican forward lacks consistent finishing but is extremely quick and an important asset despite rotating regularly with Matteo Politano. Kvara has been given the nickname Kvaradona, an homage to Maradona, as many see him as the crux of this young team and perhaps an emerging dynasty.
With the league all but wrapped up, Napoli can now focus on the Champions League. Having topped their group, which included Liverpool and Ajax, Spaletti’s side will now face Eintracht Frankfurt in the round of 16 and, in current form, should get past the German side. A deep run in the tournament would cap off the fairytale season in style. As of now, every team in Europe should fear Napoli.