Serie A has never been more exciting to watch than this season, and if there is one game to prove it, it’s the upcoming Napoli – Sampdoria clash. Arriving with none of the hype or the international glamour that an Inter – Juventus game would elicit, there is more reason to be interested in this apparently low-profile match than in any mid-table clash across the rest of Europe.
Napoli are the grand bang of the season alongside Udinese, having started out with their foot on the gas-pedal and temporarily stealing the thunder from the big sides as they seized first place in Serie A. They have since lost that position to Milan after their away 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Rossoneri, but the league-table is surreptitiously deceptive – Napoli dominated most of the game and were severely handicapped by refereeing which was inept at best and suspect at worst. Ultimately it took a fortuitous own-goal by German Denis to settle the score at the last minute, but don’t be fooled – the Biancocelesti are a meteor of a team at the moment, with a wealth of enchanting young players and a game to shame, and they have as much of a claim to the top of the table as anyone in Italy.
Sampdoria, for their own part, enjoyed a rocky start of the season and are still trying to get back on track. A mid-weight by default, some may wonder what they can bring to the table against the sky-coloured army they face this Sunday, but you could ask the stones in Genova and still get the same reply – Antonio Cassano. Sampdoria’s controversial player is one of the best and most unpredictable Italian forwards at the moment, and if his mood is on the swing, the Napoli defence are going to have a very hard time holding his feet down.
Napoli’s response to Cassano is Ezequiel Lavezzi, the 23-year-old Argentinean striker who has just been called up by former Napoli number 10 Diego Maradona for his national team. Blessed with an incredible instinct for close dribbling and a powerful long-range shot, this kid is a true leader, and his performance against Milan suggests an excellent physical condition. Backing him up from the midfield will be Marek Hamsik, the other young jewel in Napoli’s glittering crown of talents. Aged a mere 21, the Czech midfielder has tremendous offensive qualities and is already one of the brightest prospects in Serie A.
The Cassano – Lavezzi duel will give us the chance to see two of the most spectacular forwards in Serie A battling it out on an open field, but that’s only part of the story. Both teams possess intriguing talent and players to watch.
For one thing, the Napoli – Sampdoria match is relevant to anyone concerned with the fate of the Italian national team. Much has been made of the recent and uncharacteristic drought in central defenders that the Azzurri has been suffering from, which sees Fabio Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini still looking for decent substitutes. This game may provide clues to finding just that. Napoli defender Fabiano Santacroce is young and promising (if a little too enamoured with red cards), while Sampdoria’s Pietro Accardi, aged 26, provides more experience and a surprising amount of grit against the most physical forwards. Unless Marco Materazzi and Andrea Barzagli seriously step up their performances over the coming months, expect at least one of these two players to feature in the next World Cup’s Azzurri squad.
Tactically speaking, the game is no Rubik’s cube. Napoli will play offensive football, as they want to do, and as their supporters will expect (the Neapolitan piazza is arguably the hottest and loudest in Italy, along with the Roman one). Sampdoria, for their own part, will have to slow things down a little as their long list of recent injuries will inevitably limit their options. In particular, the loss of Angelo Palombo means hardship. The defensive midfielder, a regular on the Azzurri bench and in the sights of Inter and Juventus, is a destroyer in the Gennaro Gattuso school of football.
Without Palombo, Sampdoria are going to have some real trouble clamping down the likes of Hamsik and Mannini, and their defence is bound to be rather low. Nonetheless, this match is likely to be decided not by tactical sagacity but by the confrontations of individual talents – Cassano will be flanked by Claudio Bellucci, who opens up spaces for the former and is a cynical finisher. Santacroce will not be enough to hold them both, but he will enjoy the reassuring company of Paolo Cannavaro and goalkeeper Gennaro Iezzo, both in exuberant form. Whether that will suffice is something of an incognito.
The Sampdoria defence seems markedly less solid: Hugo Armando Campagnaro, their charismatic Argentinean central defender, is out injured, and with Stefano Lucchini also unavailable, they will have to play with virtually no defenders on the bench. How they will fare not only against Lavezzi, but also against his equally imposing fellow countryman German Denis, is something to be seen.
Napoli are the clear favourites, but think twice before putting money on the win. Sampdoria are a team with an excellent frontline and an often remarkable grit. Having already drawn with Inter and Juventus, they could easily provide a surprise on Sunday. Napoli, on the other hand, would be worth watching even if their team weren’t so chock-full of future stars – in the space of less than twenty years, they passed from being the best team in Italy and home to Maradona, to struggling in the lowest division of the country, to coming back and again topping the charts. It is a Cinderella story with the aura of Wuthering Heights – the same, ironically, as the personal history of Antonio Cassano. Whichever way it goes this Sunday, it’s going to be drama.