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On February 17, FC Barcelona will be receiving the visit of SSC Napoli at the Camp Nou in the first leg of their playoff to get into the last 16 of the Europa League. The team from southern Italy are always a danger and are currently riding high in third place in Serie A, just two points adrift of leaders AC Milan.
They finished above Leicester City and Legia Warsaw in the Europa League group stage.
Under coach Luciano Spalletti, they are battling hard to win what would be their third Serie A title, following those of 1987 and 1990 that they won in their golden era with Diego Maradona in the side. That was also the period when they won their sole continental title, the 1989 UEFA Cup. Napoli are dreaming big. They haven’t won much silverware over the years, but they feel that this could be their year.
The Serie A title race is a tight one this year. AC Milan, who haven’t won the league since 2011, are currently top, but their neighbours and defending champions Inter are just one point behind with a game in hand.
And Napoli are also well in the hunt, currently third, just two behind the leaders with a 16-5-4 record. Juventus, who prior to Inter’s victory last year had enjoyed nine years of uninterrupted dominance, are somewhat out of the picture in fourth as the things stand.
December was an odd month for Napoli. They lost three consecutive games at home to Atalanta, Empoli and Spezia, yet beat AC Milan at the San Siro.
2022 has got off to a much better start. Napoli are unbeaten in six games, including a 1-1 draw with then-leaders Inter on Saturday
Dries Mertens and Victor Osimhen are leading the way with seven each of Napoli’s total tally of 46 goals. But it’s in defence where Napoli have really been basing their form, with just 17 goals leaked in 25 games, the lowest tally in their league.
Out of the cup
Napoli’s presence in the Europa League knockout stage went down to the very last game, when they had to beat Leicester at home and did so, 3-2. Spartak Moscow topped the group.
But their Coppa Italia run came to an untimely end. In a dramatic game on January 10, they were losing 2-1 at home to Fiorentina and had both Hirving Lozano and Fabián Ruiz sent off towards the end but still managed to find an equaliser five minutes into injury time.
However, despite managing to take the game into injury time, playing nine against eleven proved too much of a challenge and they went on to lose 5-2.
Luciano Spalletti played professionally in the 80s and 90s but is better known for his work as a coach. He’s been at Empoli, Sampdoria, Venezia, Udinese, Ancona, Roma, Zenit St Petersburg and Inter Milan in the past, before taking the Napoli job last July.
A tactical maestro, although he generally a proponent of the 4-2-3-1 system, he enjoys varying his tactics to out-thwart his rivals.
And he’s not quite as defence-first as some might think. He gets his teams to attack and makes extensive use of the wings. That said, a tight defence is invariably a key aspect of his game plan.
- Kalidou Koulibaly: Senegalese centre back who joined from Genk in 2014 and whose name has often been attached in the rumour mill to some of Europe’s biggest clubs. He has an imposingly powerful physique, but is also impressively skilful with the ball at his feet.
- Fabián Ruiz: Spaniard who joined from Betis in 2018 at the age of just 22 and has not stopped developing since. Tends to play as a defensive midfielder but has a tremendous mid-range shot when called upon, and has scored five times this season.
- Piotr Zielinski: Polish attacking midfielder who joined in 2016 from Udinese after two fine seasons on loan to Empoli. Has gradually consolidated his role in the team and is now a regular start, having contributed six goals and five assists to the cause this season.
- Lorenzo Insigne: A Naples native, Insigne is very much the fan favourite since his breakthrough decade ago. He has already announced that this will be his final season at a club to which he has dedicated his entire life, and will be leaving for Toronto FC when it’s over. He has six goals and six assists this season.
- Hirving Lozano: The Mexican is the archetypical winger, hard-working, speedy and a terrific dribbler. ‘Chucky’ joined in 2019 from PSV Eindhoven, and struggled to adapt at first but is now fully settled into the Napoli way. He’s scored five goals this term.
- Victor Osimhen: The Nigerian was the most expensive signing in club history when he arrived from Lille in 2020. Mostly used a centre forward, injury meant he was unable to go to the African Cup of Nations, but it looks like the man who’s scored nine goals already this season is back to full fitness.
- Dries Mertens: Joined in 2013 from PSV Eindhoven, it feels like the Belgian has been in Naples all his life. In fact the winger/striker has said that he can’t imagine himself playing for any other team. The 34-year-old is belying his age and his predatory instincts have produced nine goals so far this season.
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