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Maradona redux: New-look Napoli win Italy | Football News

On Thursday night, Napoli ended a wait that stretched 33 years and four days. The club and the players felt they owed this unusual occurrence to a coming together of things some celestial, others more terrestrial. The first Serie A title since 1989-90 was theirs because Diego Maradona’s spirit, the genius of manager Luciano Spalletti, the vision of Napoli president Aurelio di Laurentiis and the Russia-Ukraine conflict contributed to creating a force that lost the least, scored the most and conceded the fewest.

Napoli's Victor Osimhen celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates (REUTERS)PREMIUM
Napoli’s Victor Osimhen celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates (REUTERS)

Naples and Maradona will stay intertwined as long as Mount Vesuvius overlooks this southern Italy city. The San Paolo stadium became Stadio Diego Armando Maradona after his death in 2020. Check out any celebration video and chances are you will see a lot of flags in Napoli’s electric blue with a silhouette of Maradona. Asif Kapadia’s 2019 documentary or that by Emir Kusturica in 2008 and Paolo Sorrentino’s deeply personal film ‘The Hand Of God’ all depict the bond between the man who came in 1984 and never really left.

“They (the fans) saw Diego Armando Maradona play and maybe his protection is also felt in this success,” said Spalletti. It was a throwback to Doha in December when the terraces bounced to a song that spoke of Dona, Tota and Diego blessing Messi’s men. “To be compared to him, to be the captain after Maradona to lift the Scudetto, I just have no words,” said Giovanni di Lorenzo, Napoli’s constant at right back.

Like the Maradona years (1984-91), this campaign needed a squad overhaul. Defender Alessandro Renica, goalkeeper Claudio Garella, forwards Bruno Giordano and Andrea Carnevale had joined after Maradona sought reinforcements. All of them, along with dependable centre-back Ciro Ferrara and tireless midfielder Fernando de Napoli, were part of Napoli’s first Serie A title in 1986-87. Garella and Giordano had left by the time Napoli again won the Serie A but the rest were there. By then, Napoli’s frontline had also been bolstered by Brazilian Careca, who scored 10 goals in the 1989-90 campaign, and a young Gianfranco Zola.

This season, Napoli sold centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly and midfielder Fabian Ruiz and let forward Lorenzo Insigne, the club’s legendary goalscorer Dries Mertens and David Ospina go on free transfers. It led to a 16% pruning in the wage bill but upset the fans who, last July, had asked Spalletti to stop dreaming.

Still, over the years, De Laurentiis had spent over €260m on this squad. Goalkeeper Alex Meret had joined in 2018, midfielder Piotr Zielinski in 2016 and forward Hirving Lozano in 2019. As the world reeled from Covid-19, Victor Osimhen was signed for €71m from Lille. Also joining in 2020 was central defender Amir Rrahmani.

Sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli too had done his homework. He got Kim Min-jae for €18m from Fenerbache to replace Koulibaly and so popular is the Korean that the Maradona roars “Kim” every time he clears his lines. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia came from Georgia’s Dinamo Batumi, the left-side midfielder having moved from Rubin Kazan because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. FIFA allowing foreigners’ contracts in Russia to be suspended gave Giuntoli the chance to make the transfer of the season.

Impressive though they are, 12 goals and 12 assists in 29 league games don’t quite tell the Kvaratskhelia story. His technique, dribbling, shooting and the sheer audacity of some moves like when he beat three Atalanta defenders got fans to call him ‘Kvaradona’. Kvaratskhelia and Osimhen (22 goals and four assists in 27 games) have been the first among equals in this team. It was appropriate that Osimhen shot in a Kvaratskhelia rebound in the 1-1 draw against Udinese on Thursday.

When Osimhen was injured, Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone stepped up, the latter scoring in the 2-1 win against 2021-22 champions Milan to lay down the marker for Napoli’s title challenge. As did the 5-1 win against Juventus, Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia getting three goals, when a defeat would have reduced Napoli’s lead to four points. Raspadori and Simeone joined this term. In midfield, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Zielinski and Stanislav Lobotka provided the thrust that would have Napoli attack from the start.

Knitting it together was Spalletti. He had got the old order to change at Roma (Francesco Totti) and Inter (Mauro Icardi) so an overhauled squad was something he didn’t mind. “When we are able to implement 99% of his (Spalletti’s) ideas, we can destroy the opponent,” said Osimhen.

Vindication for his imaginative and attacking ways –Napoli swarming into space in the rival half defined their season till the last few games – that fetched Spalletti two Russian league titles, the Italian Super Cup and the Italian Cup – came only after he turned 64 making Spalletti the oldest manager to win Serie A. He was to this squad what Alberto Bigon was to Maradona’s men. “I see similarities between the two sides: for example, the spirit and the desire to sacrifice for the common cause,” Bigon, the manager in 1989-90, told Gazzetta Dello Sport.

For Di Laurentiis, too, vindication was 19 years in coming. In 2004, the club was bankrupt and in the third tier. “This is a starting point, not an ending,” the film producer told a packed Maradona on Thursday.

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