Napoli's remarkable surge towards Serie A title reaches another threshold

Luciano Spalletti's side can go 18 points clear of Inter with victory against Sassuolo on Friday

Napoli's Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen celebrates with Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (r) after scoring against Cremonese on February 12, 2023 at the Diego-Maradona stadium in Naples. AFP
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Luciano Spalletti will take each game as it comes. The coach of Napoli has been saying so all season, even as his club’s lead at the top of Serie A stretches to Vesuvian heights.

But, match by match, calculations can still be made privately, and when he looks at the Serie A table on Friday night, Spalletti may well see another small threshold has been passed on the way to the title.

If Napoli beat Sassuolo, who are 15th, they will take into the weekend an 18-point lead over second-placed Internazionale. Inter will have 16 games to catch-up. It would feel like a significant point in the equation of impossibility, challenged to cut more than a point per fixture from the vast gap.

The more improbable a real title-race becomes, the less you hear about Spalletti’s jittery record in them in a career that has just passed the milestone of 1,000 senior matches as a coach.

There are two league titles in that body of work, both with Zenit Saint Petersburg in Russia. There are four Serie A silver medals, spread across his two spells at Roma, and a bronze from last season with Napoli where, having set the pace in the autumn, they held top place at the end of February but then fell away.

He had been close with Roma too, in 2007-08 and 2016-17, and while it would be inaccurate to characterise him as a nervous finisher in a tight pursuit of a title on the basis of those precedents, there is an intensity to a typical Spalletti team that carries a heavier risk of late-season fatigue.

A 15 point lead must be the best sort of insurance against blips of form and it is certainly a welcome cushion ahead of the resumption of Champions League assignments.

Napoli's Italian coach Luciano Spalletti shouts instructions. AFP

Napoli next week travel to Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of a last 16 tie that itself looks like a reward for their efficiency in finishing top of their group in November. They gained that first place on the back of a 4-1 win against Liverpool. Liverpool got Real Madrid, the defending champions, in the next round; Napoli landed Eintracht, who are in Europe’s premier competition for the first time in more than 60 years.

The World Cup interruption was relatively kind, too, none of Napoli’s five called-up players involved in Qatar beyond the quarter-finals. But these marginal advantages scarcely explain the dominant position Spalletti has engineered in Italy, and the swagger they have taken into Europe, where Liverpool were treated relatively gently in conceding four goals in 42 minutes at the Diego Maradona stadium. Poor Ajax conceded 10 times across their two matches against Napoli.

Domestically, Juventus have been beaten 5-1. Sassuolo were thrashed 4-0 in October, when Victor Osimhen netted his first hat-trick in Serie A and accelerated a remarkable sequence for the Nigerian centre-forward. Since returning from a thigh problem that had kept him out of action for over a month in the autumn, Osimhen has scored 15 league goals at a rate of one every 71 minutes. That’s not too far shy of the ratio Erling Haaland has maintained for Manchester City in the Premier League.

Napoli's Georgian forward Khvicha Kvaratskhelia celebrates after scoring against Cremonese on February 12, 2023. AFP

Osimhen is on course to finish as the division’s leading marksman, the Georgian revelation, Kvhicha Kvaratskhelia as the league’s leading provider of assists and the pair of them as a partnership as effective as any that has been put together in European football since last season.

The 22-year-old winger arrived in the summer into a space vacated by two departing club icons, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens. So confidently, and thrillingly did Kvaratskhelia adapt to a new league that Spalletti has lately been comparing him to Mohamed Salah, who the coach worked with at Roma. “They have that lightness of touch and balance while dribbling,” explained Spalletti, “and the feints and the finishing. He reminds me of Salah.”

Kvaratskhelia puts some fans, at least in their nicknaming him ‘Kvaradona’, in mind of Maradona, the figure who looms largest of any football figure over Naples and the star of the club’s previous two Serie A titles, in 1987 and 1990.

It has been a long, often tortured wait for the next scudetto, but it really should not drag on too long now. A group of statisticians at Naples’ Federico II University reckon that, based on overall form - one loss all league season; only three points dropped since August - the title should be secured before the end of April, with six matches to spare.

That’s all hypothetical, says the coach. “I am very pleased the players are focused only on the next game,” insists Spalletti. “If we start making assumptions, it will be a costly error.”

Updated: February 17, 2023, 7:29 AM