14 Feb European Football Round-Up: Napoli Title Charge Continues while Östersunds Plot One of Europe’s Biggest Shocks
NAPOLI PASS LAZIO TEST AND BELIEVE THEY CAN END 28-YEAR WAIT FOR TITLE
Nobody within Maurizio Sarri’s team is taking anything for granted, but with Napoli sitting at the top of Serie A just one point above Juventus, there is a real sense of belief they can finally end their 28-year wait for a title. Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Lazio was a real test. The capital club were third at kick-off and found themselves 1-0 up inside four minutes at the Stadio San Paolo, before folding in the face of incredible pressure from a team with the bit well between their teeth.
There have been few Napoli teams since the halcyon days of Diego Maradona that have played in the manner of the current crop, but ‘Sarri-ball’, as it’s become affectionately known, has taken the fan-base by storm and some of the football on show on Saturday really was quite stupendous. Statistics can sometimes be misleading, yet Napoli had 69% possession against Lazio and registered 17 shots, against a side who have some of the league’s most talented players in their ranks. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Ciro Immobile and Stefan de Vrij weren’t given a sniff on Saturday evening.
Supporters would be forgiven for not getting carried away with the Neapolitan club’s run of form and lofty league position — it’s still only early February and there have been numerous false dawns since their last success. Under Edoardo Reja and Walter Mazzarri there was always talent within the squad. It’s easy to forget that Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain all passed through the doors, yet the current group is the best team the club has produced since the 1989/90 season.
Throughout Mazzarri’s time in charge, Napoli would start well and look like an outside bet for the championship and then fall away, sometimes in spectacular fashion. The club lacked the requisite edge to maintain a title charge.
This season, things are different. Napoli don’t have Champions League football to think about whilst Juventus do. The Europa League is an attractive prospect, but everyone within the city is focused on one thing and one thing only — the Italian championship. There are undoubtedly more challenges to come, as in early March they face Roma and Internazionale in successive weeks as well as the small matter of the away trip to Juventus Stadium on April 22nd.
Up to this point, they have taken every challenge in their stride. Pundits and rivals are waiting for them to fall away, yet Napoli seem to somehow be improving. Time is of the essence, though, and one of the most unfortunate parts of modern football comes rears its head when you realise this will be Napoli’s best opportunity to win the title with the current group.
Juventus were pegged back at the start of the campaign by a difficult transfer window in which Leonardo Bonucci departed the club; there won’t be a repeat this summer. It’s likely many of the current Naples heroes will be the subject of transfer offers from clubs with far deeper pockets. Chelsea have already reportedly sounded out the possibility of Sarri taking over at Stamford Bridge.
Momentum is building at the San Paolo, the football being played is phenomenal and the results are those of a championship winning team. The belief amongst the players is high and the victory over Lazio will do wonders for maintaining such a feeling.
All things point towards a sustained title charge; they have been the best team in Italy this season and now must negotiate the final third of the campaign without the stresses which may await rivals Juventus. Not only is the city ready for a championship, but the team is too.
ÖSTERSUNDS READY TO SHOCK ARSENAL
With Östersunds coach Graham Potter having ultimately been judged to lack the experience to be handed the Stoke City job he clearly wanted, the Englishman will now turn his focus to Arsenal with the Swedish club ready to shock the Gunners in Thursday’s Europa League tie.
The pre-match back and forth has already begun between the respective social media teams as Östersunds showed off their igloo changing rooms on Twitter, yet there is a rather more serious point to such joviality — Arsenal will not be ready for these conditions and are entering the match at a low ebb.
Saturday’s North London derby defeat was a real blow for Arsenal supporters, simply because it showed just how much more complete a team Mauricio Pochettino has at his disposal.
Arsene Wenger’s top-heavy line-up will head to Sweden with the club having struggled to build any real momentum in the Europa League this year. In the end, they progressed comfortably through the group, but too often the team lacked motivation in what is widely seen as a secondary European tournament at the Emirates Stadium.
Any such repeat will be punished by a team that has captured the hearts of many a neutral due to their incredible rise up the Swedish footballing ladder. This is undoubtedly the biggest match in Östersunds’ history and they will be motivated accordingly, and Arsenal will need to match their effort levels in order to emerge unscathed. We’ve already seen a flat Gunners side slip out of the FA Cup to inferior opposition.
For Potter himself, Thursday represents an incredible opportunity to once again prove the doubters wrong. He has been overlooked for numerous coaching positions in the English top flight due to a lack of experience, yet now has the opportunity to end Arsenal’s last remaining hope of Champions League football in the 2018/19 season.
This further adds to the motivation the entire Östersunds organisation will have. With temperatures already around -4 degrees in Östersund and the Jamtkraft Arena having an artificial pitch, the deck is stacked against Arsenal and we could well be in line for one of the biggest shocks in Europa League history.