Napoli have turned their season around after a worrying start, going from relegation candidates to serious contenders for a UEFA Champions League place in the space of three short months. Now lying fourth in Serie A following a club-record run of 13 games without defeat, including seven wins and six draws, the southerners are finally tapping the potential of a side packed with talent and coached by the unconventional Walter Mazzarri.
Another key figure in the Neapolitan revival has been president Aurelio de Laurentiis, who saved the club from bankruptcy and has opted for a policy of gradual development rather than extravagant spending. His judicious dealings in the transfer market led to the arrival of Slovakian attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik and the Argentinian twosome of Ezequiel Lavezzi and German Denis for a total outlay of less than €20m. The successors of the Ma-Gi-Ca triumvirate formed by Diego Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca some 20 years ago, it is no surprise that the carefully assembled trio are now catching the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Success has not come easy for the men in blue, however, with the president having struggled to find a coach able to fulfil his lofty ambitions. Roberto Donadoni’s failure to build on the foundations laid by previous incumbent Edoardo Reja had De Laurentiis casting his net once more in search for the right man.
He appears to have found him in Mazzarri. When the 48-year-old slipped into the hot-seat on 18 October, Napoli were struggling in 15th place with only seven points to their name. “It was time to move on to a second phase,” said the president when unveiling his new appointment, a free-thinker who has been reluctant to outstay his welcome in his previous managerial posts.
A hard-working midfielder in his playing days, which began with him being hailed as the new Giancarlo Antognoni, Mazzarri turned out for 12 teams in all before going into coaching in 1996. He seems certain to surpass that tally in his managerial career, having held the reins at nine different clubs already. Intriguingly, he has yet to be sacked, moving from one post to another of his own volition, in an ongoing search for new experiences and adventures.
The nomadic tactician has imposed his tactical philosophy at the Stadio San Paolo, opting for a three-man defence and asking his well-staffed midfield to press high up the pitch. “We want to neutralise our opponents’ attacks by doing what Barcelona do,” he has said, revealing the secret of his side’s success.
Mazzarri has also demanded that his players fear their opponents and remain humble at all times, a call that seems to have been heeded, with Napoli having climbed their way up the table in quietly confident fashion.
The leaders of this unassuming but solidly constructed pack are international goalkeeper Morgan de Sanctis, forward Fabio Quagliarella, who is staking a claim for a place in Italy’s squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and captain Paolo Cannavaro, the younger brother of Fabio. The Neapolitans also have a sprinkling of young stars on their books, among them midfielder Luca Cigarini, while full-back Andrea Dossena has just arrived from Liverpool.
Yet as far as Mazzarri is concerned, this is only the beginning. “This team still hasn’t realised what it’s capable of," he said. "We’re still making schoolboy mistakes, but that’s understandable when you look at the average age of the squad. We need to look very hard at ourselves without searching for easy excuses, and I’m convinced we can grow quickly and achieve even bigger goals in the future.”
Given Napoli's current rate of progress, Mazzarri’s lofty targets could be fulfilled sooner rather than later.