Napoli slip up on emotional weekend for Italian football

Napoli’s crushing 4-2 home defeat to Roma could be a turning point in this extraordinary Serie A title race, but there were more important matters in Italian football this weekend. By Jamie Braidwood

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It was just after 10 o’clock in Naples but the prospect and promise of Saturday night had already died.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, but as S.S.C Napoli step ever closer to its first league title since 1990 so does the challenge, the expectation and the pressure.

And it is the dream of this league, that elusive Scudetto, that fills the heads and minds of those in this football obsessed city.

But as A.S Roma’s Diego Perotti tucked away a loose ball to put his side 4-1 up in the Stadio San Paolo, the reality of the situation became clear.

It was only Napoli’s second league defeat of what has so far been a remarkable season. They have been close to flawless, playing some of the most attractive football in Europe under their coach Maurizio Sarri, but Juventus are still right behind them, breathing down their necks.

Perhaps it was the manner of Juve’s late win on Saturday night, immediately before Napoli kicked off their match in the south, that caused the league leaders to blink. Paulo Dybala’s 93rd minute winner away to 3rd placed Lazio, in a game that seemed destined to finish 0-0, was symbolic of Juventus’ ruthless determination to keep up.

The result meant that Juve closed the gap to just a point. Napoli’s defeat now means that the Old Lady can retake the lead if they win their game in hand, while the two sides will also meet in Turin in a potentially decisive clash in late April. While meaningful title races are non-existent across the rest of Europe’s top leagues, in England, France, Germany and Spain, it is very much still alive in Italy.

Napoli’s push for the title is probably also the most romantic footballing story anywhere in Europe at the moment. Indeed, the desperation for the city to repeat the remarkable feat achieved by Diego Maradona and his team in 1986 and 1990 is almost overwhelming.

Maradona is still idolised like a god in Naples. The Argentinian was already a superstar when Napoli broke the world transfer record to sign him from Barcelona in 1984, but his performances elevated a club who were fighting relegation to league champions, becoming the first team from southern Italy to win the national title.

The success Maradona brought to Napoli, and his willingness to spend his prime years in Naples, when, as the greatest player on the planet, he could have gone anywhere in the world, will never be forgotten. Neither will, you would imagine, this Napoli team if they ended their 28-year wait for a third Scudetto.

This is a remarkable team in their own right. Not only because of the football they play (video clips of Napoli’s passing moves during games often go viral on social media), but because some of the characters in the team; Dries Mertens, the unfancied Belgian winger who has transformed into a 30-goal-a-season striker. Marek Hamsik, the Slovakian midfielder who has stuck with Napoli for the past 11 seasons to become their influential captain and all-time top goalscorer. Lorenzo Insigne, the local boy who has grown into a prolific forward and, potentially, the heir to Maradona’s throne.

Not to mention Sarri himself, the 59-year-old coach who is compared only to Pep Guardiola, who has worked his way up through Italy’s smallest clubs and divisions and was rewarded with the Napoli job in 2015. Sarri finished 2nd to Juventus in his first season and won ‘coach of the year’ in his second.

It’s hard to not see Saturday night as a potential turning point in the Serie A season, a night where in May fans might look back and suggest that was where it all went wrong. The challenge for Napoli now is to keep moving forward, under the immense pressure of history. Their next match, Inter Milan away, will be a huge indication as to how they will cope.

Saturday was not the end of the world, even in Naples. Television pictures showed a young fan in tears as Roma scored their fourth, and it is not unlikely that older supporters will have felt just as broken as the prospect of failure, of falling short once again, flashed in front of their eyes.

But it was not the end of the world. To chase a dream is one of life’s greatest pleasures, to follow a football team on its way to achieving theirs is another. Football is at its best when it means something, when it takes you from the highest of highs, from ecstasy and hope, to the lowest of lows, to despair and anguish.

That’s life though, and on the weekend we were reminded of that. There is a famous quote in football, to whom it attributes to apparently ranges from Pope John Paul II to Arrigo Sacchi, which reads; “of all the unimportant things in life, football is the most important”, and on the weekend we were reminded of that again.

Because on Sunday morning Italian football woke to the devastating news that Davide Astori, the 31-year-old Italian defender and Fiorentina captain, has suddenly died at his team’s hotel. Astori was with his team preparing for Fiorentina’s away match against Udinese. He had gone to bed on Saturday night as usual, with his mind presumably on the next day’s game and his young family, but in the morning he never woke up.

It is a tragic reminder of how fragile life can be. Astori was a fit athlete, with no history of heart defects. It makes the emerging news that he suffered a cardiac arrest all the more concerning. “Of all the unimportant things in life, football is the most important”, but football is, as the quote reads, ultimately unimportant.

Sunday’s Serie A fixtures were postponed so that respects could be paid, but the season will continue. Whether Napoli win the league for the first time in 28 years is ultimately unimportant, but it is still there to be enjoyed. As is life, as is our journey, as is our quest to chase our dreams.

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