Napoli aim to maintain fine form and element of surprise in bid for Serie A title

Luciano Spalletti has guided the club to the perfect start as hopes increase of a first scudetto in 31 years

Live on air, Jose Mourinho was momentarily taken by surprise. The broadcaster, DAZN, was carrying out a live interview with him and suddenly connected the Roma head coach to his counterpart at Napoli. Both had just celebrated victories.

Mourinho quickly paid Luciano Spalletti some generous compliments. They are long-time rivals, veterans of a few head-to-head tussles when they were both much younger. But they can share plenty of stories about the demands of managing Roma and Inter Milan, where both have worked.

“So, great Spalletti, are you planning to win every match this season?” asked the Portuguese.

Spalletti laughed. Napoli’s winning run is still well short of the record he once set for consecutive victories in Serie A - 11, with Roma - but the club’s seven wins and no dropped points put them ahead of any other team in the five leading domestic leagues of Europe so far this season.

Napoli will go into the eighth matchday of Serie A two points clear of AC Milan, four ahead of champions Inter, and six in front of Mourinho’s fourth-placed Roma.

Way back in seventh are Juventus, whom Napoli have already beaten and whose distance from the leaders is taken as encouragement that the 2021/22 title is one that might be seized by a relative outsider.

Napoli count as that. They may have had three runners-up finishes in the last six years, but it is 31 years since they finished top, and only five months since they fell short of finishing in the top four, looking brittle and nervous on the last day of last season as they threw away a lead and the points that would have secured fourth place at Juventus’s expense.

That confirmed the end of Gennaro Gattuso’s spell as head coach and in the eventful round of musical chairs that was Serie A’s summer of managerial change, ushered a return to the top division of Italian football for Spalletti.

Imaginative, and occasionally irascible, Spalletti, 62, has put his stamp on Napoli quickly. They are enterprising in attack, studious with their homework and carry an element of surprise.

Witness the winning goal that maintained their 100 per cent record at Fiorentina just before the international break. It came from a free-kick, at which the usual taker, captain Lorenzo Insigne, feigned to deliver a cross, right footed, but instead left the execution, left-footed, to Piotr Zielinski, who had acted as if to move away from the spot where the ball was placed. Fiorentina were instantly wrong-footed, defender Amir Rrahmani unmarked to head in his second goal, and Napoli’s 18th, of the campaign.

Spalletti was beaming at the excellent execution of a carefully devised plan, though he gave the credit to his long-time assistant Daniele Baldini. Baldini devised the routine, with Insigne acting as the distraction and Zielinski pretending to be distracted until he darted up to offer the unexpected angle.

It turned out Baldini had developed it from a similar manoeuvre he had watched in a Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and Werder Bremen three seasons ago. Baldini spends a great deal of time, at Napoli’s Castel Volturno training campus, scouring for fresh ideas and recommending them to Spalletti.

The set-pieces are serving Napoli well: four goals from free-kicks; one from a corner; two converted penalties so far, and you could add to the list the Insigne penalty that was saved in Florence but turned into a Hirving Lozano equaliser at the third attempt during the frantic penalty-box pinball that followed the save.

It helped Spalletti’s men to an unusually narrow victory, 2-1. They concede few goals, Rahmani part of a defence that had let in just three in the league so far.

All these impressive statistics will greet Torino on Sunday and Mourinho’s Roma a week later, and as Spalletti welcomed back his players from international duty on Thursday, he was keen to keep up the momentum, and especially to confirm the fitness and readiness of the trio returning from World Cup qualifiers in Africa.

Napoli’s success has been built around the spine of Kalidou Koulibaly, the Senegal central defender, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, the Cameroon midfielder and Victor Osimhen, the Nigerian centre-forward.

Osimhen has four goals from his last four games. Anguissa, signed from Fulham in the summer “brings the qualities we were lacking,” according to his head coach, while Koulibaly’s already high reputation has grown in the last two months. “An exceptional leader,” Spalletti calls him.

The coach knows a major challenge will come when all three depart in early January, for the Africa Cup of Nations. They may be away for a month. Napoli will miss them.

Updated: October 15th 2021, 6:16 AM