Naples; the one-team city that lives vicariously through its football club. It’s no understatement to say that the mood of southern Italy’s largest city is inexplicably linked to the fortunes of SSC Napoli.
On Tuesday, as Napoli prepared to take on Real Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League round of 16 clash, this mesmerising and manic footballing city united as one behind its famous old club.
Offices and shops closed early, schools were dismissed at lunch time, and for almost three hours before kick off, the creaking foundations of the Stadio San Paolo heaved under the strain of a capacity crowd and the weight of expectation.
Social media exploded with photos and video footage taken in and around the stadium, with the Napoli fans being lauded for their wonderful support. As a frequent visitor to the region and an adopted Partenopei, the actions of the warm and passionate inhabitants of this fantastic city never cease to amaze me, but even I was blown away by such a powerful display of support; Naples, did indeed, expect.
For 45 minutes, Napoli fans dared to dream; 1-0 up at half-time through Dries Mertens, with the width of a post denying him a second goal on the night, the only scare at the other end coming as Ronaldo somehow managed to also hit the post after planting Pepe Reina on the ground. It was a sumptuous first forty-five minutes by the home side, pinning the European champions in their own half for large portions as the added physicality of Allan, a surprise starter at the expense of the ever impressive Marko Rog, constantly pushed Real Madrid back toward their own goal.
The question, as it was against Juventus in the Coppa Italia, was could Napoli return after the interval and pick up where they left of, and sadly just as was the case in Turin, Napoli stumbled. Sergio Ramos found space in the area not once, but twice, in quick succession and while his second goal was credited to Dries Mertens as an own goal, the presence of Ramos was crucial.
Many people, myself included, had asked why? Why was the most obvious and imposing physical threat allowed space in the penalty area, but this is Sergio Ramos; he’s done this time and time again at the highest level. Once Ramos gets a run on you, you’re beaten; he’s a phenomena, and at the San Paolo he played a captains role, as much as you may rightly argue that Napoli could, and should, have defended better.
What stood out to me though is that when Ramos scored his first goal, the Napoli players became visibly slumped; their chests were no longer puffed out, the shoulders became slumped, the confidence which oozed from every pore in the first half was gone, drained from them due to the actions of their illustrious opposition. The saddest part was that Napoli appeared to accept what was happening to them, not react to it and when the second Madrid goal went in, the legs went; it was heart breaking to see.
A late Morata goal added some gloss to the scoreline but the tie had already been won by Ramos at this point, however Napoli exit the competition with their heads held high. There is no shame in being eliminated by Real Madrid, especially having led not once but twice against a side which can, quite often, defeat opponents with just the sight of the famous white shirt alone.
Yet Napoli fans can feel somewhat aggrieved; knocked out by Chelsea in 2012 after defeating the eventual winners 3-1 at the San Paolo, eliminated with 12 points in 2013 behind Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, and now after winning their group for the first time they faced Real Madrid on the one occasion they finished runner-up in their own group. Fate, it feels, continues to conspire against Napoli when it comes to Europe’s elite club contest.
Now, I read an interview today on BBC Scotland’s website with the attacking coach of the Scottish rugby national team, Jason O’Halloran, (bear with me here), and some of what he said really struck a chord with me in terms of the ‘issues’ Napoli seem to have when it comes to playing against the very best opposition.
Napoli have no problem competing, Sarri’s football is the best in Italy and amongst the best in Europe, and they have proven they can stand toe to toe, exchange blows, and even take the lead in these games, but is something lacking? Not ‘cazzimma’ as De Laurentiis called it, but a winning mentality, that toughness that winners have; at times it feels like Napoli, as much as I adore them, have a block, like they’re afraid of winning big.
Scotland, Andy Murray aside, are not renowned for being winners. We’re better known for ‘having a go’ or ‘getting stuck in’ but ultimately when defeated, we’re almost happy being the underdog, we borderline revel in it and wear it like some jovial badge of honour; “Ah well, we done our best eh”? It has carried on for so long that it’s become almost a parody; the lovable losers, the guys who turn up for a party knowing their team will lose, but hey we’ll have fun while it happens.
And that’s where the interview with O’Halloran comes in, one which absolutely in my mind applies to Napoli at present; he said, “The next evolution for this team will be ditching the craving of the underdog status and that’s a massive mentality shift that we need to go through as a group. We’re still more comfortable as underdogs, but we have to get to a place where we’re comfortable being favourites.”
Getting to a stage where we are comfortable being favourites; that, in my opinion, perfectly sums up Napoli at the present stage of their current evolution. They go into games knowing they can play well, knowing they can compete, knowing they can score against any opposition but they lack the mentality to carry it over the line, to get the job done; the mental toughness that turns good teams into great teams and great teams into Champions.
Now none of this is intended to be negative about Napoli or Sarri, not in the slightest; remember, I’m a Napoli supporter and I adore the football we play under Sarri but for the team to take that next step perhaps a big character is required, someone who has the kind of mentality I mentioned; dare I say, as vocally opposed as I have been regarding him, someone like Zlatan Ibrahimovic who could would not only bring out the winning mentality in those who possess it, but he would simply demand it from them.
The challenge for the remainder of the season on the pitch is securing second place in Serie A and a return to the Champions League group stage next season, as well as trying to overturn another 3-1 first leg deficit as they host Juventus in the Coppa Italia semi-final. Off the field, the issues mount up in terms of contract renewals and rumoured departures; Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, Kalidou Koulibaly, Faouzi Ghoulam, Elseid Hysaj, and Piotr Zielinski constantly being mentioned as moving in this summer.
Napoli, or more importantly club president Aurelio De Laurentiis, must ensure that the bulk of these players, as well as manager Maurizio Sarri, have their services retained and that this fascinating journey is allowed to run its course. The youngsters in the side, Zielinski and Diawara, will only learn from the games against Real Madrid and it will have made them hungry for more, hungry to become winners.
If this side is allowed to remain together and if they can infuse a stronger winning mentality whilst casting aside the underdog tag, then the next few years could be some of the best Napoli fans have witnessed since the heyday of one Diego Armando Maradona. Far fetched? Some may say so, but the one thing this Napoli side certainly don’t lack is talent; just imagine if they found the mental toughness to match.