Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Napoli brought the curtain down on the Italian season with a stirring Italian Cup final victory, ending what had up until that point been an unbeaten campaign for Juventus.
The 2-0 scoreline denied the Turin club the double, but it was a perfect way to celebrate a year which had seen Walter Mazzarri's Napoli bring an attack-minded approach to both the domestic and continental stage, winning them plenty of admirers both home and abroad.
Inconsistency in the league cost the Azzurri a return to Europe’s premier competition, but hoisting aloft the cup for the first time since the Diego Maradona era was more than adequate reward – and how the Partenopei enjoyed their evening in Rome.
Over 30,000 Napoli fans danced and sang in the rain inside the Olympic stadium, while back in the Bay area the mother of all parties was well under way even before the final whistle sounded.
Success was built around stifling Juventus at source, with Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi closing down the Bianconeri back-three, thus denying Leonardo Bonucci in particular the space to bring the ball out towards the halfway line.
There is no doubt Mazzarri outwitted Antonio Conte tactically, and when Juve were forced to hit the ball long, Hamsik was already shadowing Andrea Pirlo in the centre of the pitch.
With the Swiss pairing of Gokhan Inler and Blerim Dzemaili forming a formidable defensive wall through the centre, Pirlo was forced into ever more risky passes. When he turned to the flanks, Christian Maggio and the very impressive Juan Zuniga were quick to press forward, leaving Napoli’s back three relatively unscathed apart from a late Salvatore Aronica challenge on Claudio Marchisio inside the area which went unpunished.
Winning the ball higher up the pitch unleashed Napoli’s best weapon: the counter-attack, with Inler and Dzemaili taking it in turns to break forward to support the attack while Zuniga and Maggio kept their opposite wing-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Marcelo Estigarriba pinned back - and more times than often forced to track back, leaving Napoli with superior numbers to repel any Juve counter.
It was the perfect strategy to make the champions look almost ordinary, but the night belonged to the men dubbed ‘The Three Tenors’: Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik.
It was a much-used routine that broke the deadlock just after the hour-mark, when Hugo Campagnaro’s long throw was flicked on by Cavani for Lavezzi to burst into the area where goalkeeper Marco Storari could do nothing but bring the Argentine crashing to the floor.
In the stands, owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, who had dragged the club out of the third tier some eight years ago, could not watch as Cavani stepped up to dispatch the penalty in a manner befitting his moniker ‘The Matador’.
From that moment, Napoli as a whole were equally clinical in everything they did, as Juventus, as was to be expected, poured forward in search of an equaliser.
The gaps were there to be exploited, and after Mazzarri withdrew Lavezzi, who had run himself into the ground on what was more than likely to be his last appearance for the club,. El Pocho’s replacement, Goran Pandev, took up the mantle to play Hamsik in for the all-important second goal seven minutes from time.
Juventus may have fought back from 2-0 and then 3-1 down at the San Paolo earlier in the season, but there was little time left to mount another comeback - The Invincibles were vanquished, with Fabio Quagliarella shown a straight red card in added-time for elbowing Aronica.
The Napoli team and its travelling support could not wait for the final whistle to go as they crowded around the edge of the pitch; Lavezzi was so overcome by the moment that he broke down in tears and missed out joining his team-mates in tossing Mazzarri up into the air.
De Laurentiis strode around the pitch like a conquering Cesar while Hamsik made good on his promise by allowing his team-mates to shave off his Mohawk – it was one of those evening where you knew would end in volcanic emotions.
And what of Alessandro Del Piero on his final appearance in a Juventus shirt? Well, it was a low-key evening, ending earlier than expected when he was substituted with 22 minutes still remaining, but in truth his parting gift had come last weekend back in Turin during the title celebrations.
As ever, he was gracious in defeat, as were Juventus, who left the stage for Napoli to party the night away. Knowing Naples, the party will continue right up until the two sides meet again in the Italian Super Cup in August.
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