Straight from the dark heart of Italy
The great thing about Italy - especially if you reside in the north of the country - is that if you tire of the long, inclement winter then all you need do is hop on a plane and an hour later you are basking in the warmth of the south.
So rather than face another Sunday in frigid Lombardy, Serie Aaaaargh! decided to board a mid-morning flight to Naples and grab the only ticket in town: Napoli against Juventus.
Touching down in the shadow of Vesuvius under pristine, blue skies with the temperature a good 15c warmer than in Milan, there was more than the feeling of spring in the air: the taxi driver set the tone for the day asking if our party were Juve fans down from the damp flatlands for the game.
He was not at all surprised to learn that we had merely sought to escape the greyness of the north -even if was only for a day - and what a day to pick when the whole of the city was abuzz with the arrival of the Old Lady who was ripe for picking, according to said taxi driver.
As the cab sped through the tunnels, giving a tantalising glimpse of the Bay and coastline to the south of the city, fans were already gathering in bars to listen to radio commentaries or watch pay-per-view coverage of the afternoon matches.
AS Roma had already come undone at Sampdoria and picking an outside table along the Lungomare area that runs around the bay there were soon yelps of delight to be heard as Udinese took the lead at AC Milan and Catania followed suit at home to Inter.
It may be an old cliché but they really do love their football down in old Napoli, and they are not afraid to express an opinion about it either: the taxi driver had already predicted that the home side would clean the floor with Juve but that the team lacked depth to finish in the top four.
The drop-dead gorgeous waitress with penetrating eyes (Italians never miss a trick when it comes to the important things in life) was certain that owner Aurelio De Laurentiis was going to lead her beloved club to the Promised Land while grandma at the cash register was still all misty eyed for the days of Diego.
In fact, it was one of those days where there was no better place to be than feeling the warmth of a winter sun in a football-crazy city. Taking a taxi back past the San Paolo around 5pm and it seemed that over half of the capacity crowd were making their way to the stadium or already inside for what was to be the first sell-out in many a year.
Expectations were high: Milan had been held to a 4-4 draw on what seemed to have been a crazy afternoon at the San Siro, Lazio had imploded at home to Lecce, Roma had already been on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline at Samp and Palermo had ended goalless at Chievo which only left Inter’s 2-1 win at Catania to spoil a perfect day.
Still, the Nerazzurri were still off the pace and in Napoli they only have eyes for one love and on the walk to stadium, the air was heavy with adoring adulation while once inside it was a cauldron of emotion.
The home team may have been coming off a sobering 3-1 defeat at Inter, but then again Juve had recently capitulated against Parma, lost the ‘traitor’ (as he is now known in Naples) Fabio Quagliarella to injury, and had signed Luca Toni…
In fact, watching Juve warm-up the words of the taxi driver that the Old Lady was there for the taking came ringing back.
There in the full-back positions were Armand Troare and Zdenek Grygera – the former making his starting debut in Serie A and the latter in the line-up only because teenager Frederick Sorensen was still suffering from the shock of his stinker against Parma.
Then in attack, there were the photo-fit twins, Toni and Amauri, all straggly hair and flailing arms and whose very presence invited the long-ball game.
The home side, for their part, looked the business. The weak-link in defence, Salvatore Aronica, had been relegated to the bench in favour of the diminutive but tough-tackling Gianluca Grava, with the Holy Trinity of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and the soon-to-be-hero of the hour Edinson Cavani ready to reap havoc up front.
And so it turned out, as Cavani swept home a hat-trick on what was an intoxicating evening of typically raw, southern Italian passion, albeit without the tears (except from the Juve fans, obviously).
There was a least one striker with long, flowing locks who knew how to use his head although Toni can feel hard done by that he had a header disallowed for an adjudged foul of goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis when the score was 1-0.
However, it was the simple adage of get the ball wide, take on the full-backs and deliver telling cross for a frontman on form that won the day. Cavani is now entering the realms of a world-class striker: 13 league goals, seven in the Europa League not to mention five in four international outings for Uruguay since the summer
There are very few strikers who can carry a team on their shoulders – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto’o and Cristiano Ronaldo come to mind - but now ‘El Matador’ can join such exalted company – and you know you have made it when your president claims that not even €50 million of Manchester City’s oil money would be enough to prize away the new darling of the Neapolitans.
There is an old Italian saying dating back to the 19th century that translates roughly as ‘see Naples and die’. Far from being a blunt threat, this was a reference to the breath-taking beauty of the city. Perhaps the phrase needs to be updated for 2011. ‘ See Naples and die, but not before you get the chance to see Napoli at the San Paolo’.
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