Not since the days of Diego Maradona have Napoli finished top of the pile in Serie A. Indeed, 1990 was the last time the Serie A trophy was paraded at the San Paolo, now named Stadio Diego Armanda Maradona in tribute to the man who brought unprecedented times of success to the soccer-obsessed city.
Now, 31 years later, Naples is once again dreaming of Scudetto glory. 12 fixtures into the 2021/22 season, Napoli are top of Serie A having won 10 and drawn just two. Luciano Spalletti’s side have yet to suffer a single defeat in the league this season and are widely viewed as one of the frontrunners to win the Scudetto.
Under Spalletti, Napoli have been a formidable force. While they were previously spoken about in terms of their raw potential, Napoli are now playing a more refined and complete game. There is a verve to their play, but that hasn’t come at the cost of structure. At this specific moment in time, Napoli look like Italy’s best.
However, they will face the toughest test of their Scudetto credentials this weekend when they travel north to take on defending Serie A champions Inter. A positive result at the San Siro would add further evidence to the argument that Napoli can go all the way this season. A defeat, however, would raise the prospect that they will ultimately fall short.
Inter swept everyone aside on their way to their first Scudetto in 11 years last season before Antonio Conte left in the summer amid tension with the club’s hierarchy. New manager Simone Inzaghi has yet to impose a new identity on the title winners he inherited, but the Nerazzurri are still a team packed full of individual quality.
An Inter victory over Napoli on Sunday would raise hopes for Inzaghi and his players that they can mount a genuine title defence, but the visitors to the San Siro also find their season on a similar knife-edge even at such an early stage of the campaign. This weekend’s contest could be one of the most compelling of the Serie A season.
Napoli’s Scudetto chances could rest on the fitness and reliability of Victor Osimhen, who has scored five goals in 10 Serie A appearances this season. The Nigerian is the attacking focal point of Spalletti’s team and has the makings of one of the best centre forwards in the European game. He is capable of even better.
“He is similar to [George] Weah, probably not as strong technically, but with the same quality,” Spalletti said when recently asked to describe Osimhen’s game and how he could continue to grow. “He also reminds me of [Marco] Van Basten. Osimhen is young and he can reach those levels.”
Sunday’s match could be decided in the centre of the pitch. This is where Inter are strongest, certainly after the addition of Hakan Calhanoglou from rivals AC Milan in the summer. Marcelo Brozovic and Nicolo Barella give the Nerazzurri balance in midfield required to control matches through their use of the ball and their appreciation of space.
In Fabian Ruiz, though, Napoli boast one of the most accomplished central midfielders in Serie A. The Spaniard continues to grow in stature and is a driving force behind Napoli’s title challenge. Spalletti’s 4-3-3 shape has been built to get the best out of Ruiz with Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa the perfect partner for him in midfield.
Piotr Zielenski is also in the side to support Ruiz, who is attempting 13 passes per 90 minutes more this season than last season. In fact, Ruiz ranks top for the most passes attempted per 90 minutes in Serie A this season, illustrating how influential he has been for Napoli since Spalletti took charge.
Under Gennaro Gattuso, Napoli were quicker to go direct while Spalletti favours a more considered approach. However, Napoli are making more passes into the final third this season than they were last season. On both sides of the ball, this allows them to control matches in a more efficient way.
Fitness levels have improved among the players at the Stadio Diego Armanda Maradona since Spalletti’s appointment in the summer and that has given Napoli the ability to press higher and with more intensity. Whether or not Spalletti’s team can maintain that intensity over the whole season will go a long way to determining if they finish it with silverware in-hand.