ROME — It’s almost comical now looking back to mid-July when Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti told protesting fans to “shut up” as he presented the team at the opening of preseason training in the Italian Dolomites Range.
Already in May, Spalletti’s Fiat Panda car had been stolen — with ultras putting up a banner saying it would be returned only if he left Napoli.
Well, the protests seem like ancient history now following Napoli’s most exciting start since the days when Diego Maradona played for the club.
A 1-0 win at José Mourinho’s physical Roma team on Sunday marked an 11th straight victory across all competitions to match the club record set in 1986 with Maradona.
The Partenopei are also three points clear of defending champion AC Milan atop Serie A, have won all four of their Champions League matches to qualify for the knockout phase with two group games to spare, and have blitzed their way through Europe with a 4-1 win over last season’s finalist Liverpool and 10 goals scored over two matches against Ajax.
Time to start celebrating? Not quite, says Spalletti.
“Titles are not won after 11 matches,” the coach said. “You win titles in May or June or August — whenever the season ends. We’ve got to keep our feet on the ground without any presumption, without carrying ourselves as phenomenons.
“We’re going to keep eating our sandwiches on the train and we’ve got to keep ourselves as lucid as an old record player,” Spalletti added.
The factors behind Napoli’s sudden transformation from perennial challenger to unbeatable juggernaut lie in smart market moves, Spalletti’s ability to take charge with the club legends gone and a modern style of constant attacking that is still rare in defensive-minded Italy.
Fans were left scratching their heads when Napoli brought in the previously unknown 21-year-old Georgia winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia to replace Insigne on the left wing and South Korea center back Kim Min-jae for Koulibaly.
But Kvaratskhelia and Kim have become two of the top players in the league this season. Kvaratskhelia, a dribbling wizard, was named Serie A’s player of the month for August and already has seven goals and several assists in 15 matches across all competitions.
Kim, the league’s player of the month for October, has demonstrated just as much physicality as Koulibaly. Against Roma, he almost single-handedly kept striker Tammy Abraham from getting a decent look at the goal as Roma didn’t produce a single shot on target.
Add in the arrivals of 22-year-old Italy forward Giacomo Raspadori, who also has scored five goals, and Giovanni Simeone, who has four, and Mertens is no longer missed at center forward.
Raspadori and Simeone also made sure that Victor Osimhen wasn’t missed when the Nigeria striker was out for nearly two months with an injured right thigh.
Osimhen has since returned and scored in three straight matches, including an impressive winner against Roma.
Napoli had been mentioned as one of the more likely destinations for Cristiano Ronaldo when speculation was rife that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner would leave Manchester United in August.
Spalletti even spoke openly about welcoming Ronaldo into his team.
Now it seems they might be better off without him as Spalletti has full control over his squad. The absence of veterans like Mertens, Insigne and Koulibaly have enabled the feisty Tuscan manager to avoid the type of tricky situation he got into during his second spell as Roma’s coach in 2016-17, when he had to ease club legend Francesco Totti into retirement — making him the target of fans’ resentment.
Spalletti’s innovative style first showed promise at Udinese nearly two decades ago when he led the provincial club to a fourth-place finish and a spot in the Champions League. He won two Italian Cups with Roma in 2007 and 2008 and then raised Russian league trophies with Zenit Saint-Petersburg.
The one big thing missing in Spalletti’s career is an Italian league title — which now seems within reach.
Napoli, of course, hasn’t won the “scudetto” since Maradona led the club to its only two domestic league titles in 1987 and 1990.
When Maradona died in 2020, the team’s stadium was renamed Stadio Diego Armando Maradona — where the club will aim for a record 12th straight win against Rangers in the Champions League on Wednesday.
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