Aurelio De Laurentis thinks little of the Coppa Italia. "If it were up to me, I'd have it abandoned," said the Napoli president after watching his club get eliminated from Italy's domestic knockout competition in midweek. He thought little better of the refereeing during Juventus' 3-0 win against the Neapolitans, either. "We were penalised by the outcome," he huffed.
De Laurentis, a film producer and impresario, would not directly say the Coppa Italia had assumed smaller proportions on Napoli's horizons. But the Serie A league table spells that out for him. His club sit in fourth place this morning, level on points with third-placed Juventus and on course to qualify at least for the preliminary rounds of next season's Champions League. Their form, at least until last Wednesday's hiccup in the cup, has been fabulous. Defeat against Juve was their only loss in their last 13 matches, and they host Palermo this evening in a meeting of two sides on something of a roll. Both have dropped only two points of the last 15 available to them.
Napoli's is much more of a revival. After they lost the opening match of the league season in Sicily to Palermo, the then head coach Roberto Donadoni presided over a further three defeats in his next six Serie A outings. De Laurentis swiftly ushered him towards the exit door. Walter Mazzarri, who was available after leaving Sampdoria in the summer, promptly took over with a victory against Bologna. He has not lost a league match since the first week of October.
Mazzarri's appointment looks more and more inspired. He knew the place well enough already, having started his coaching career at the club as assistant to Renzo Ulivieri some 10 years earlier. The decade in between has been a trek around smaller clubs, with Mazzarri mostly over achieving with them. He was behind Livorno's promotion to Serie A in 2004, spent much of the next three seasons successfully waging battles against relegation at the helm of Reggina and in his two campaigns in charge of Sampdoria he delivered a place in the Uefa Cup and then a runners-up medal in the Coppa Italia, a competition he would value a little more highly than De Laurentis does.
Certainly, the Napoli of Mazzarri play with more self-belief than the Napoli of Donadoni's later days, and there have been specific bad-ges of honour that can be pinned to the chest of the new head coach. His substitutions have been gratifyingly decisive, especially in the higher profile fixtures. Luca Cigarini and German Denis both came off the bench to score in the 2-2 draw against Milan; Jesus Datalo entered the Serie A game at Juventus just before the hour and within seven minutes had set up one goal, and scored another in a vividly celebrated 3-1 win.
The jury is still out on Datalo, the Argentinian midfielder who arrived at Napoli amid great expectations but is seen by Mazzarri as best deployed from the bench. But one celebrated signing coming into his own under the new head coach is Fabio Quagliarella, who joined under Donadoni in the summer. He has four goals from his last five Serie A outings, and good prospects of going to the World Cup with Italy.
In with an outside chance of joining him is Andrea Dossena, newly arrived from Liverpool and regula-rly capped by national coach Marcello Lippi. Dossena could start today although Mazzarri will be reluctant to leave out his usual left back, Gianluca Grava, an unsung hero of the Napoli renaissance. And Dossena may not be the last addition to the roll-call this month, hinted De Laurentis. "I would be interested if you find a good prospect in this market, but it would be a young player for the future, maybe even someone we loan out once we have signed him," explained the club president, adding that he would not do anything to upset the happy equilibrium created by Mazzarri.
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