'Even better than Erling Haaland!' - Can world's most exciting No.9 Victor Osimhen keep Napoli's Champions League dream alive?
Erling Haaland to Napoli was effectively a done deal. Before the opening of the 2020 January transfer window, the Partenopei had agreed to pay the €25 million (£22m/$27m) buy-out clause in his Red Bull Salzburg contract.
Haaland, though, opted to join Borussia Dortmund instead, though, leaving Napoli sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli crestfallen. He called it his "biggest regret" in the transfer market, which is understandable, given it was obvious even then that Haaland was a generational talent born to score goals.
However, Giuntoli did not allow himself to get disheartened. He had done his homework. He already had an alternative target lined up, one he was adamant was "on the same level" as the Norwegian striker.
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His name was Victor Osimhen and Giuntoli was in no doubt that the Nigerian striker was also destined to define an era.
So much so, in fact, that he convinced his notoriously parsimonious president Aurelio De Laurentiis to splash a club-record €70m (£61m/$73m) on Osimhen just six months later, stunning Serie A.
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A player and a set of supporters made for one another
It wasn't just about the club-record fee. Or the fact that it came at a time when the financial implications of the Covid-19 crisis were becoming clear.
To a lot of observers, it just felt like far too much money for a 21-year-old coming off the back of a breakout season in France in which he had scored a commendable but hardly earth-shattering 18 goals in 38 appearances in all competitions for Lille.
However, it now looks like a bargain, with Osimhen's value having doubled in the interim, at least in De Laurentiis' eyes.
In that sense, missing out on Haaland is looking like something of a blessing in disguise. Would he have scored freely for Napoli? Of course. The kid is a goal machine. But let's face it, he'd already have left by now.
Haaland's career has been very clearly mapped out, characterised by clauses which have allowed him to move regularly and for relatively small sums of money. It's also doubtful that Haaland, for all his endearing attributes and quirky characteristics, would have formed quite the same bond with Napoli as Osimhen.
Indeed, this is a player and a set of supporters that just feel like they were made for one another.
'Part of my life has been a struggle to survive'
Naples is a city that has long been plagued by severe socio-economic problems, but its people are warm, witty and renowned for their resilience.
Osimhen was always going to feel right at home, as this is an inspirational young man who knows what it is to suffer and to struggle.
The youngest of six kids, he was raised in abject poverty in Lagos. His mother died when he was still a child – he doesn't even remember the year – and his father lost his job just three months later.
He used to clean his landlord's gutters and sell bottled water in the middle of traffic to try to help his family make ends meet.
"Where I grew up, people live on the other side of an open dump," he told France Football. "With my friends, we went there every Friday or Sunday to find football boots and shoes. We stayed there for a long time. It was funny! We saw it as a game but when you think about it... it was always a fight.
"Part of my life has been a struggle to survive. But that's all I am today in the end. It's hard to process it all but each event has created my personality."
A personality absolutely adored by Neapolitans, which is precisely why they stood by him through a difficult start to his career in Serie A - something he's never forgotten.
'Everyone connected to Napoli makes me fly'
"The love I enjoy here is massive," he once told BBC Sport Africa. "The club, the city, the fans and everyone connected to Napoli make me fly." Almost literally.
Osimhen is renowned for his strength, pace and Ronaldo-like ability to take out an entire defence - but one of the most remarkable images of this season's Champions League is Napoli midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa being left open-mouthed as his No.9 rises to a frankly ridiculous height to head home the opening goal in the Champions League last-16 win over Eintracht Frankfurt at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.
Osimhen has previous, though, having bettered an iconic leap - and goal - by Cristiano Ronaldo for Juventus, climbing two centimetres higher, to 2.58 metres, to score against Spezia in February.
An earlier effort against Torino during the 2021-22 campaign, meanwhile, took Antonio Cassano's breath away.
"Osimhen went above the crossbar and scored a crazy header," the former Italy international told BoboTV. "It reminded me of those goals that [Didier] Drogba used to score."
Osimhen would have loved that comparison, given he grew up idolising the Ivorian.
When Lille played at Stamford Bridge in 2020, he even called all of his friends on a video chat beforehand to show them that he was walking on the same "grass where my hero scored so many goals".
'The best striker in the world'
It's hardly surprising, then, that Osimhen has been linked with a move to Drogba's former club, Chelsea, who are spending money like it's going out of fashion and remain in dire need of a prolific No.9
However, they're hardly alone in that regard, which is why Manchester United and Bayern Munich are also in the mix.
In truth, nearly every top club in Europe is looking at Osimhen.
As agent Andrea D'Amico told Radio24: "He certainly won't lack options, especially in England and Paris Saint-Germain.
"At the moment, Osimhen is the best striker in the world. Yes, even better than Haaland!"
But while everyone wants Osimhen, it's Napoli who need him right now - probably more than ever before, in fact.
'Victor is a hero of these fans now'
The Partenopei are 14 points clear at the summit of Serie A, so the Scudetto is effectively in the bag, thanks in no small part to Osimhen, who has struck 21 times in just 24 league games this season.
However, Napoli's hopes of continuing their historic run in the Champions League are hanging by a thread after last week's 1-0 loss to AC Milan.
Luciano Spalletti's side had 16 shots at San Siro and yet somehow never really looked like scoring - not without Osimhen on the pitch, at least.
Strength in depth is undeniably one of the reasons for Napoli's Serie A supremacy this season. During the first half of the campaign, Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori both stepped up whenever Osimhen was out.
However, Raspadori is still trying to regain his best form after his own spell on the sidelines, while Simeone is injured at the minute.
So, Osimhen's return to full fitness after picking up an injury on international duty could not have come at a better time for Napoli, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, his mere presence on the pitch makes a monumental difference to his team's attacking threat. Napoli turned in a worryingly poor performance in last Friday's 0-0 draw at home to Verona, but as soon as Osimhen entered the fray late in the second half, they suddenly looked capable of making the breakthrough.
The 24-year-old attacker actually very nearly broke the crossbar with a stunning strike from just outside the area - less than 10 minutes after his introduction.
Consequently, that brief - albeit unsuccessful - cameo has renewed optimism among the fans ahead of Tuesday's second leg at the Maradona. Which brings us on to our second point.
While Osimhen was out of action, some of Napoli's ultras began a protest against their own club over ticket prices and stadium restrictions. The net result was some supposed supporters refusing to cheer on the team during the 4-0 league loss to Milan.
After Napoli were then beaten by the same side at a raucous Giuseppe Meazza last week, Spalletti pleaded with his own club's supporters to generate an equally vociferous atmosphere in the return leg. If that call was to fall on deaf ears, the frustrated coach said he would go home.
Happily, a truce appears to have been called in this self-destructive civil war, with the ultras and De Laurentiis having held successful peace talks over the weekend.
The hope, then, is that a re-united Napoli and returning Osimhen can propel the club into the semi-finals. Certainly, after the doom and gloom of last week, a comeback now seems possible.
As Spalletti said himself, "Victor is a hero of these fans now, so there is always a wave of enthusiasm around him."
'What's happening to me is incredible'
Of course, how long he will stay in Naples remains very much up in the air. De Laurentiis obviously wants to keep him for as long as possible but has openly admitted that "there are offers that you cannot refuse".
Osimhen himself has also confessed that his dream is to "someday" play in the Premier League, and it appears only a matter of time before it is realised.
For now, though, his primary objective is sealing the Scudetto. The people of Naples embraced him like a son and now he wants to repay them with a first Serie A title since 1990.
"The truth is, what's happening to me is incredible. I hope the fans are as happy as I am, as we are," he told France Football. "They are the ones who gave me the confidence that a young player needs to really explode."
They certainly stuck with Osimhen through thick and thin, because in him they saw one of their own.
As club legend Ciro Ferrara pointed out previously, when the Nigeria international was brought off in a game against Cagliari last season, he was given a standing ovation - as much for his attitude as his talent.
"The affection from the city is extraordinary, I have never received so much love," Osimhen enthused. "I can't wait to celebrate with them at the stadium."
Don't be surprised, though, if he sparks a little pre-party on Tuesday night.
After all, not many people agreed with Giuntoli that Osimhen was on the same level as Haaland three years ago, but plenty more share that view now - and around 55,000 of them will be at the Maradona for the return to the Napoli starting line-up of the world's most exciting No.9...