It seems to be a law of football that, in each league and each cup competition each season, there must be a romantic challenger: a team that may not necessarily have the best chance of success, but plays the game in such a way that they attract the affection of the average fan. In the past couple of years in Serie A, it has been Atalanta; this year, that mantle has passed to Napoli. Coached by Luciano Spalletti, whose trademark of thrilling football was first widely evident at Udinese in the mid-2000s, the Southern Italian side has much to love about it. Of course, this club first found themselves on the global map following the brilliant spell spent in Naples by Diego Maradona between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, during which time he led them to two Serie A championships, a UEFA Cup, a Coppa Italia, and an Italian Super Cup. Maradona’s astonishing feats, achieved at a time when Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan were at their peak, were so impressive that following his death last November, Napoli renamed their stadium after him. However, it has been some time since they looked like they might win Serie A in the style befitting the late Argentine legend. They came closest in 2017-18, finishing behind Juventus—they may come close again this season.
Napoli began this season with eight consecutive league victories, a streak stopped by an obstinate Roma. This run of form was something new. The previous year, under Gennaro Gattuso, they were regularly one of the most entertaining teams in the division, capable of overwhelming strong opposition in a matter of minutes: Witness, for example, their dismissal of Atalanta in October 2020, when they scored four times in 20 first-half minutes, eventually winning 4-1. Yet they were also prone to capitulation at the worst possible moments, and amassed so many frustrating results that they missed out on qualification for the Champions League in the very final game of the season. This season, though, they seem to be accompanying their flair with a greater firmness in their purpose. Their 2-1 win over Juventus in mid-September, secured thanks to a late winner from their talismanic defender Kalidou Koulibaly, felt like a signature victory, one that sent them eight points clear of one of their traditional rivals.
Napoli have been a team playing in perfect harmony for much of this season: Their squad is a multicultural blend of veterans and mavericks, full of characters of great guile, charisma, and experience. To name just a few, there’s the elegant Spaniard, Fabián Ruiz, patrolling and controlling defensive midfield; Hirving Lozano, the artful and elusive wide forward from Mexico, the architect of so many devastating attacks; and the twin tricksters, Belgium’s Dries Mertens and Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne. Mertens, Napoli’s all-time leading goal scorer, and Insigne, fresh from triumph with Italy at Euro 2020, should be on a particular mission this season. They are two of the club’s longest-serving players in the modern era and have been privy to most of its recent joys and despairs. Insigne, as an outstanding playmaker from Naples, has long carried perhaps the greatest burden of all. All gifted attacking midfielders who play for Napoli exist, to some extent, in the shadow of Maradona, yet he has carved out a fine career in spite of that, twice claiming the Coppa Italia with Napoli and winning more than 50 caps for Italy. He even has a keen sense of occasion: In the first match after Maradona’s death, Insigne scored a spectacular free kick and then wheeled away toward the television cameras, roaring a passionate dedication to Napoli’s enduring idol.
The diversity of Napoli’s playing staff is thoroughly modern, but they are no strangers to nostalgia. In some home games they have worn a shirt bearing the design of Maradona’s face, a great tribute to their great past—in the past few weeks, though, the dream of a great immediate future has appeared a little less certain. They have lost three crucial league games—against close challengers Inter Milan and Atalanta, and most recently against the intense and streetwise mid-tablers, Empoli—with the decisive goals in each of these matches arriving after the 60-minute mark. This demonstrates a certain failure of game management, an inability to maintain or salvage a comfortable position. It’s a tendency Napoli need to address swiftly. The one sure thing for a romantic challenger is that as soon as the average fan falls in love with you, the threats to your happiness begin to multiply.
And the threats have surely multiplied for Napoli. To win the title, they will have had to withstand the absence—first through injury, and then due to the African Cup of Nations in January and February—of Senegal’s Koulibaly and Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, the striker who brings such fine timing and balance to Napoli’s attack. That is on top of an ailment sustained by Ruiz that kept him out of some key autumn encounters. If there is one thing they lack, it is the nonchalance of a team that has won it all before: For their sake, Spalletti can usefully frame this campaign as an appointment with destiny.
If he wishes to do that, he should move soon. This weekend sees Napoli face AC Milan, a side just above them in the table that is in similarly uncertain form and one of their grandest historical rivals. Though neither team are the all-conquering forces they once were, this tie still represents a significant test: AC Milan, like Napoli, are a team perhaps on the verge of returning to former glories, and a win for Napoli could thus have great restorative qualities.
With that in mind, Spalletti should be bold: This is a selection of players whose time has come. Their talents are wide-ranging yet complementary, and so many of their passages of play are magnificently intricate. Come the end of the season, they may not have retaken and remained at Serie A’s summit, but it will have been a rare treat to watch them try. For a couple of seasons, if you want to be entertained, it has been a wise choice to always watch Atalanta. This season, though, we must add the following adage: “Never miss Napoli.”