Napoli have finally lifted the weight of history – now they must cope with expectation
After 33 years, Napoli have the moment the club, the supporters, the football-crazed city longed for more than anything else: a return to the summit of Italian football, the Serie A crown secured, the celebrations ensured with five games to spare.
It was a stutter rather than a saunter over the line in the end, but that’s just a footnote to a campaign that will sound through history, a season when they thrilled and enthralled, blew teams away, scoring more than anybody else and conceding fewer too.
At times there are at least discussions to be had over whether a title-winning team was widely seen as the hugely subjective “best” in the league; in Serie A this campaign there are no such doubts. Napoli were better than everybody else, by a distance, whether using form, style or collective quality as a measuring stick.
Questions of consistency, team building, the wisdom of allowing so many big-name stars to depart in the same summer – they have all been entirely, emphatically answered.
The celebrations are only just getting started – but for Luciano Spalletti and his team, so too is a new challenge: to go out and repeat the feat, and turn a title-winning season into the start of Napoli’s greatest era.
There was, after all, an entire generation of supporters and families between when the last title celebrations took place and this one. Even in all those years in between, three Coppa Italia victories were a fairly meagre return for such a storied club, particularly when they had to initially offset the shame of relegation in 1998 and bankruptcy in 2004.
The long climb back from the third tier had its own near-misses and part successes, notably under Rafa Benitez and Maurizio Sarri, but the league title, the longed-for successor to the Diego Maradona era, eluded them.
Now they have that particular crown back, but establishing a successful era is a different matter. After all, this looks to be the most open period in Italian football for a long time, with no team really having asserted their dominance since Juventus won the most recent of their eight straight titles, three years ago.
Inter Milan and AC Milan ended their own shorter scudetto droughts since then. But neither were able to sustain their successes, with both having gone a step backwards domestically this season in particular – last year’s top two are fourth and sixth respectively in Serie A this term, despite meeting each other in the Champions League semi-finals, too.
Napoli’s greatest era in their history, if we count pre-bankruptcy and this iteration as the same club, came between 1987 and that most recent championship in 1990. Across those four seasons, two league titles were secured as well as one Coppa and the 1989 Uefa Cup.
That was a body of work in a condensed period that would stand up to what most clubs around Europe are or were capable of, then or now, and is what Spalletti and his team must aspire to replicate.
In particular, domestic dominance should be within their reach. The team put together with the likes of Kim Min-jae, Stanislav Lobotka, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen is the envy of the rest of the country, both for quality, age range and even how much it cost to put together. It is primed to go again next year, surely with an addition or two. The only question mark will be of keeping it together, with big offers likely to be forthcoming for the attacking pair in particular, sooner or later.
For that matter, Spalletti could also be a target, given the churn among free-spending clubs who might try to offer him a shot at Champions League success, too.
But surely he’s in place for next year at a minimum, and the structure above and around him is there too. Sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli has done a phenomenal job to replace big names with hungry, talented players. Another summer of that might not just keep the rest of Italy’s challengers at bay, but push Napoli closer to European honours, too.
There’s no question the team ran out of steam somewhat towards the end of this season; even before Thursday’s decisive encounter with Udinese, they had only won two of their previous five league games. Milan, too, knocked them out in Europe, when Napoli looked runaway favourites to reach the final on that side of the draw. So the path for further progress is there, the signposts of what needs to come next and where historical steps can be taken are highlighted and easy to see.
That’s for tomorrow, though, and several tomorrows thereafter. Tonight and the rest of the season is about celebration of a job phenomenally well done and a final, fitting way to tribute the late, great Maradona around the stadium that was renamed in his honour.