|Soaring...Edinson Cavani of Napoli|
The deafening rapture in the San Paolo at the final whistle was a giant exhale from a fanbase still breathing, defiantly and loudly, in the post-Maradona age. Since the Argentinian left Naples two Scudetti and a UEFA Cup twenty years ago, Napoli have seen financial ruin, Serie B, and even Serie C1; and now they have seen a night like this. It wasn't even a win in a knockout phase of Europe's premier competition, but it was a nudge against one of the opulent European powers. For a club so used to a narrative that looks back nostalgically at the good old days of Maradona, performing so triumphantly in the present must be an experience to savour.
It wasn't only the fact that they could have beaten Manchester City 5-1 had Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Christian Maggio taken fairly easy chances. It was also that they played City like they wanted to play them: at a safe distance, expertly muzzling a team that had disfigured Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford a few weeks ago. Even City's solitary goal was a mistake, a blip, coming from their host's largesse as Salvatore Aronica miscued a clearance, sending it into the path of David Silva, whose shot was parried for Mario Balotelli to tap in.
That was City's only success, and it came after Cavani had headed Napoli into the lead from a corner earlier in the first half. Admittedly, there was an element of luck in Cavani's goal, as the ball had only grazed the head of the skeletal Uruguayan, but it was enough to creep in at the near post.
Yet, after such a break, City's equalizer should have extinguished Neapolitan hope. However, with the second half came more Cavani, straight, diagonally, and relentlessly. And with him came Lavezzi, Andrea Dossena, and Maggio. Napoli's second goal, the already-hallowed winner, was a sumptuous Lavezzi-Dossena-Cavani combination, a combination that the vaunted Silva couldn't mastermind all night for his team. Lavezzi found a surging Dossena who crossed for Cavani to pounce on, and he did, first-time to leave Joe Hart with no chance.
Even after that, however, City had fourty-one minutes to strike back, but their coach Roberto Mancini sulked and sunk on the sidelines, watching Lavezzi stretch Hart in the City goal, and a post thwart Marek Hamsik. He also watched Walter Mazzarri take all the plaudits as the night's more astute technician. This is Mazzarri's first real shot at Europe, and he completely dominated a man who has been here before--and failed before several times with Inter.
When the draw for this group was made many predicted Napoli to finish last in it. That they sit in second going into the final matchday, their fate in their own hands, is already an astounding achievement. If they beat Villarreal and pip a Manchester City team worth a billion euros to the second round, it will send a heart-warming message to the football world.
|Joy in Naples...Napoli players celebrate|
Mazzarri's side attacked when it had to, defended obdurately when it had to, and won when it had to. They had already beaten Milan and Inter this season, but this win probably meant the most to Napoli's president, Aurelio De Laurentiis. He is the man who rescued them from Serie C1 a few years ago, investing, but keeping an eye on his club's long-term health. The movie producer is an innovator in a country with a predilection for the anachronistic. While the private ownership of stadia law, Legge Crimi, awaits approval in Parliament, De Laurentiis is already in advanced talks with the city of Naples to take ownership of Stadio San Paolo. He also has a vision for a youth academy that would nurture potential at all levels. A night like the one against City vindicates all his work, and not least his often bellicose praise of Napoli.
Italian football has suffered and is currently suffering, sitting behind the Bundesliga now in the UEFA coefficient rankings. While the Premiership's luster continues to blind, Serie A as a brand is struggling. Yet, as far as footballing philosophy is concerned, clubs like Napoli prove that their approach on the field is as modern as any European club's. A team that sits seventh in a very competitive Serie A this year has defeated a club that sits at the top of a league that many consider the best in the world.
Quite simply, when it came down to it, Napoli meant more business than the richest club in the world.