When Walter Mazzarri stated that he wanted Napoli to relive the glory days of Diego Maradona, it was difficult to take him seriously. How could the club ever experience another era like the one that Maradona gave them? Mazzarri’s bold prediction is looking less ridiculous after the San Paolo rocked on Monday night to a Christian Maggio 94th minute goal that took Napoli into the Champions League qualification places in Serie A.
Palermo’s visit to Naples was billed beforehand as a Champions League play-off. Despite both managers playing down the importance of the clash, it was obvious why so much focus was on the two competing sides. With the likes of Juventus, Roma and Inter bizarrely struggling in the league this season, it seems possible that a surprise team will earn a top four finish. Sampdoria did it last season. This year, Napoli and Palermo are the early favourites to upset the big boys and take one of their places in next season’s Champions League.
So the significance of the Vesuviani’s 1-0 win over their Sicilian counterparts cannot be underestimated. The match looked to be petering out to a goalless draw until Maggio scored with the last kick of the game to put Napoli into fourth place, level on points with third-placed Juventus. Palermo now languish four points behind Mazzarri’s men. Napoli striker Edinson Cavani was facing his former club in Palermo, and so naturally received a lot of the pre-match headlines. The Uruguayan spent three and a half years with the Rosanero, who brought him to Italy from his hometown club, Danubio. Cavani cheekily deflected the pre-match attention into the path of Palermo’s Javier Pastore, who has been linked with a transfer to Real Madrid or Barcelona due to his excellent form. Cavani joked that Pastore should join him at Napoli, a sentiment echoed by fellow Partenopei Ezequiel Lavezzi. The signing of Pastore would genuinely take this current Napoli team onto a level worthy of challenging for the Scudetto.
However, Palermo’s star player was non-existent in a first-half which the home side thoroughly dominated. Pastore was outshone by his fellow Argentine Lavezzi, who was taking the game by the scruff of the neck on behalf of Napoli. Pastore may be valued at €50m by Palermo, but on this evidence Lavezzi would not be worthy any less. Ironically, Lavezzi’s injury that prompted his substitution changed the game. Mazzarri threw on 19-year-old Nicolao Dumitru, whose hard work instigated Napoli’s injury-time winner. After Cavani had gone close several times against his former club, it seemed that neither side had anything left in their engines. But, with the four minutes of stoppage time already gone and Palermo’s fans craving the final whistle, Dumitru worked an opportunity for Cavani to cross the ball. The delivery was perfect and Maggio slid in at the back post to score the most valuable of last-gasp winners. The eruption in the San Paolo as the final whistle went moments later signalled that Napoli are one of the top teams in Italy this season.
A confident Mazzarri crowed afterwards: “It would have been a shame to not win, as we played very well. We could have scored five goals. We conceded very little, and had we scored one or two goals in the first half, we would have eased off for the remainder of the match. From a technical point of view, it is hard to find any issue with what we did wrong.” About Dumitru’s game-changing substitute’s appearance, Mazzarri beamed: “He did well in the match in front of the San Paolo public. He has a great future.”
It could be argued that fourth place in Serie A this season is Napoli’s to lose. Despite the fact that Christmas is still a few weeks away, the Partenopei have been flying all season amid a chaotic time for some of the more illustrious Italian teams. The January transfer market could be an area where Napoli help themselves maintain their lofty league position. President Aurelio De Laurentiis has promised to spend. He realises Mazzarri’s need for reinforcements all over the pitch, especially if Napoli beat Steaua Bucharest next week and qualify for the Europa League knock-out stages. The likes of Pastore will be far too much for De Laurentiis, but Napoli supporters should expect new faces.
Irrespective of any forthcoming January additions, the most important transfer news regards Paolo Cannavaro’s expiring contract. If De Laurentiis could do anything for Napoli for Christmas, it would be to agree a new deal for the inspirational captain.