More so than most people, Neapolitans have always loved a hometown hero representing their club. Naples is a unique city in Italy synonymous with grit and determination, two of the abiding characteristics of Diego Maradona himself.
More recently, that Naples-born representative on the pitch of the San Paolo has been Paolo Cannavaro, but after contract extension talks broke down this week, his status is in doubt. Added to that, another Neapolitan returned to the city of his birth to inflict a defeat on Napoli that sees them drop to fourth place.
Cannavaro, whose contract expires in the summer, still hasn’t signed a new deal with his boyhood club, but it is debatable the effect this had on Napoli’s 3-1 defeat to Udinese on Sunday. What is not debatable is the role of Antonio Di Natale, the born and bred Neapolitan whose hat-trick won the match for Udinese at the Stadio Friuli.
Napoli face six games in the next month, but Walter Mazzarri could still name his favoured team. Morgan De Sanctis, who used to play for Udinese, had a defence of Fabiano Santacroce, Cannavaro and Hugo Campagnaro in front of him. Christian Maggio, Michele Pazienza, Walter Gargano and Andrea Dossena were across midfield, and Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi complimented Edinson Cavani up-front.
Di Natale’s first goal was a penalty after 16 minutes conceded by De Sanctis, and he doubled the hosts’ advantage with a goal of the season contender. Collecting the ball approximately 30 yards out, he struck a swerving strike into the top corner, giving De Sanctis no chance. Napoli were far from their best, and a shadow of the team that had scaled up the Serie A table to third place, and were 3-0 down in the second half due to a horrible mistake from Hamsik. Di Natale’s corner landed at the near post, where Hamsik inexplicably missed it and allowed the ball to creep in. Di Natale, who never played for Napoli despite being raised in the city, didn’t celebrate his hat-trick out of respect, but it was still a bitter blow to Mazzarri’s team.
Hamsik’s gift for Udinese’s third goal was the first moment in an up-and-down second half for the Slovakian playmaker. Just a minute later he brilliantly lashed a 25-yard shot home, yet Hamsik then missed a penalty to compound a miserable afternoon for himself and his team.
Afterwards, Mazzarri insisted that the recent transfer speculation linking Hamsik with a big-money move to Manchester United was not the reason for the player’s mistakes. The coach said: “I really don’t think the transfer rumours represent a problem for Marek. He is focused on Napoli and that is all. At times young lads like this can get hurt by criticism and pressure, but it was just a bad day for Marek. He continues to be a key figure for this team.”
Mazzarri added: “We were facing a strong team and some of our players struggled today. In the second half we had a lot of scoring opportunities, but it just wasn’t our day.”
With the goings-on at the San Paolo this week, it seems strange that Di Natale ends the week as the most talked about Neapolitan. Cannavaro had dominated the talk of the town all week previous to the Udinese game due to more breakdowns in his contract negotiations.
It must be a worry for Napoli fans that Cannavaro and president Aurelio De Laurentiis have had a war of words all season regarding the negotiations. The 29-year-old captain has been handed the three-year extension he asked for, but hasn’t been granted the pay-rise he feels that he deserves, as De Laurentiis feels the defender is holding the club to ransom.
The threats issued by Cannavaro’s agent Enrico Fedele will not have impressed De Laurentiis, and could compromise the player’s future at the club. Fedele warned: “I can say that we will never go to Napoli to ask for the contract. And if we don’t receive news then we will start to look around elsewhere. “I am annoyed because Paolo loves the shirt and wants to stay. In the past we asked for a pay rise, but we got a negative response. Napoli’s strategy could be dangerous because when they knock on our door it could be too late.”
A classic game of cat and mouse is developing between Cannavaro and De Laurentiis. Whilst the president is mindful of not investing too much money in a 29-year-old, he must surely know that Napoli cannot maintain their top four finish without their inspirational leader.