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'Even Maradona would be proud of us' - How Napoli became Europe's most electrifying team

10:00 GMT+3 12/10/2022
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Many pundits thought Napoli might struggle this season after losing several stars. but Luciano Spalletti's side are the new darlings of Europe

In an interview with the Gazzetta dello Sport last Tuesday, Ruud Krol claimed that no team in Europe is playing better football than Napoli right now. The following night, they proved his point, inflicting a historic 6-1 defeat upon Ajax in their own backyard.

Marco van Basten called it a "massacre", Piotr Zielinski went with "magical", while the always colourful Aurelio De Laurentiis hailed a "cosmic display" from a "stellar squad".

Wherever one's allegiances lay, it was a staggering game to behold. Even Fabio Capello was impressed.

The legendary Italian coach has long since grown disillusioned by the gulf in class between Serie A sides and Europe's elite, so he was blown away by what he had just witnessed. "Napoli just gave a football lesson at the Johan Cruyff Arena," he told Alessandro Costacurta on Sky Sport Italia. "A lesson to the Dutch, who taught the rest of us how to play!"

Ajax's social media team had teed the game up beautifully by posting a moving image of Cruyff and fellow footballing icon Diego Maradona sitting on a coach together to watch the Champions League tie.

De Telegraaf commented afterwards that while "Napoli's spectacular game in Amsterdam would certainly have enchanted Maradona, Cruyff would have without doubt been very disturbed by Ajax's performance, which became the laughing stock of Europe."

Indeed, Van Basten was both embarrassed and enraged, lashing out at his former club for "spending €100 million during the summer in a strange and crazy way. Something is wrong."

Napoli, by complete contrast, got everything right during the transfer window, with club president De Laurentiis and sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli pulling off one masterstroke after another.

Indeed, despite losing several stars, Napoli have somehow come out of it stronger. And they didn't do it by splashing an exorbitant amount of cash.

Napoli spent just under €60m (£53m/$58m), replacing former captain Lorenzo Insigne, defensive lynchpin Kalidou Koulibaly, star midfielder Fabian Ruiz and all-time leading scorer Dries Mertens.

This is no sports-washing project either. Napoli are not a state-backed club with a bottomless well of oil money, and yet after three games they had scored more goals (13) in this season's Champions League than anyone else, including Erling Haaland's Manchester City (11).

Isn't it any wonder, then, that Luciano Spalletti's side have suddenly become the toast of Europe, the new favourite team of the hipster football fan?

Not that you would have known from the Italian coach's downcast demeanour in Amsterdam. At one point during his post-match interview, the journalist had to ask if he were actually happy with the result.

He was, of course. Minutes before, he had complimented his players on a "beautiful" display, before then immediately reminding them that they haven't achieved anything yet. His thoughts had already turned to their next game, against Cremonese. It would be tough, he warned. And he was right.

Napoli won 4-1, but the scoreline flattered them. As Spalletti told DAZN, "It became a battle on a level that is not suited to our characteristics. We were unable to get the second ball often enough and it became a match we were not accustomed to. However, the team never lost their heads, so in the end our approach was rewarded."

And this taps into a couple of the reasons why many pundits are starting to believe Napoli might now have as much substance as they do style. After all, they've now won eight consecutive games in all competitions for the first time in club history.

Napoli are top of Serie A, having already defeated defending champions AC Milan at San Siro, while they have won all three of their Champions League games to date, including a 4-1 rout of Liverpool.

However, Spalletti's ability to get a side playing good football has never really been in doubt. He's long been regarded as a fine tactician – his strikerless system at Roma, which turned Francesco Totti into a prolific goalscorer, was a source of inspiration to Sir Alex Ferguson.

The question remains, though, as to whether he is really capable of winning major trophies. He may have lifted two Russian Premier League titles at Zenit, but he has never claimed the Scudetto.

And he's no stranger to strong starts either. Napoli, remember, were top for the majority of the first half of last season. They also went back above both Milan and Inter on matchday 27, only to lose three of their next seven games – which included a 1-0 home loss to the former – and end up finishing third.

The difference this time, though, could be strength in depth.

For example, the loss of much-coveted centre-forward Victor Osimhen to injury during the demolition of Liverpool looked like a major blow for Napoli, but he's not been missed at all. Napoli have won six games without the Nigerian, with summer signings Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone having caught fire in the interim.

Of course, it's helped having Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, every full-back's worst nightmare – just ask Trent Alexander-Arnold. The €10m signing from Dinamo Batumi already appears to have the Signing of the Season award wrapped up, and should earn plenty more plaudits by the season's end.

In midfield, meanwhile, former Fulham man Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa has been a revelation alongside Zielinski and Stanislav Lobotka, who has taken his game to a whole other level this term and now looks set to be rewarded with a new contract.

Even Tanguy Ndombele, a loan signing from Tottenham, is showing glimpses of the potential world-beater we once saw at Lyon.

Napoli's key acquisition, though, arguably came in defence. Koulibaly should have proven impossible to replace and yet Inter icon Beppe Bergomi is among those that thinks Kim Min-jae is actually better than the Senegalese in certain areas.

Spalletti, of course, is doing his utmost to distance himself and his players from all of this giddy talk. There is still such a long way to go, and this is a season like no other, with a World Cup dropped right in the middle of it, creating the kind of congested calendar we've never seen before.

Are Napoli and Spalletti up to the challenge? Both their squad and their mettle will be pushed to the limit in the coming weeks and months.

But then, Kvaratskhelia insists there are "no limits" for this side. Raspadori, too, is adamant that they can play even better than they performed at Ajax.

“It’s a team full of great players," he told Corriere dello Sport. "If we continue like this, we can aim higher than everyone thinks."

The word is out now, of course. There's no hiding it anymore – and Spalletti clearly has a team capable of winning the Scudetto and challenging for the Champions League.

He knows it too. Towards the tail end of his post-match press conference in Amsterdam, he almost grudgingly admitted, “This evening we made some plays that were truly lovely to see. Even Maradona would have been proud of us."

It would certainly be nice to think that San Diego and Cruyff will be watching again on Wednesday night. The hipsters certainly will be. Because there really is no better footballing side in Europe right now.