Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Anyone who thinks watching Napoli is a massive bucket of fun obviously hasn’t been following the Azzurri recently.
Going into the international break they lost at Catania, having frozen in the headlights at Bayern Munich where they were 3-0 down inside 42 minutes before offering something of a comeback to finish 3-2.
Then on their return to competitive action at the weekend they failed to break down a well organised – read “defensive” – Lazio, though they had a good goal incorrectly ruled out for a non-existent offside.
The result left coach Walter Mazzarri and his not-so-merry men off the pace in the league, seven points behind Juventus and facing Manchester City on Tuesday in what is a make or break moment, even at this early stage of the campaign.
Failure to progress in the Champions League coupled with a sluggish domestic run could derail their whole season, so the current hype in the Bay area is for once justified, with the match billed as il finalissmo (the very big final).
Such an event needs a full house and that’s what they’ll get at the San Paolo, where the fans will be flooding through the turnstiles a good three to four hours before kick-off. The locals will no doubt be looking to welcome one of the city’s favourite players, Mario Balotelli, who they hold in high regard for being, well, Mario Balotelli, and who in return feels like an adopted Neapolitan.
City manager Roberto Mancini, however, will neither feel any affection or receive any good will on his return, having put Diego Maradona’s side to the sword with two goals for Sampdoria’s title-winning side back in 1991. But if anything, it will be the home players who will have to overcome the weight of expectation.
For the record, Napoli have never conceded a goal at home to Englis, with their results thus far a 0-0 draw with Burnley in 1967; a 2-0 win against Leeds in 1968 and another goalless draw with Liverpool in 2010.
There have been far more amazing evenings in the San Paolo over the last year, including the thriller which was the first encounter with Bayern, in which Morgan De Sanctis saved a penalty to earn what could yet prove to be an invaluable draw.
There is no doubt the fans will be up for it, but the question remains whether the players can pull themselves out of the funk in which they currently find themselves.
Edinson Cavani has been particularly out of sorts and since scoring a hat-trick against AC Milan back in September, finding the net just once more to take his season tally in the league to four. This time last year he had scored 11.
The Uruguayan endured a similar slump last term and came good again, and he did also score at City in the first meeting in Manchester, and although there were banners calling for “Sainthood Now” following his exploits last year, what the South American really needs right now is a bit of devilment.
The Holy Trinity is completed by Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who have chipped in with two goals apiece on the home front, with the former also grabbing one in Europe: So nothing much to write home about there.
However, on such evenings so far it has been Lavezzi who has thrived against foreign opposition, with his pace and darting runs causing rivals no end of grief, though as ever the Argentine’s finishing remains wayward, with the 26-year-old generally preferring to attempt and walk the ball into the net.
Lavezzi may be hyper on the pitch but on the sidelines it is the over excitable Walter Mazzarri who must ensure his players keep their heads and not allow all manner of distractions to get to them - such as owner Aulerio De Laurentiis
The ever-combustible movie mogul has been obsessing about this game ever since the draw was made and nothing will pacify his desire to take the Sky Blues into the big time. It is that craving which could work against his team unless the players can find the calm in what promises to be a tempestuous night in Naples.
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