Maurizio Sarri would rather take his dog Ciro for a walk or pick up a John Fante novel.
“I won’t be watching the World Cup,” he said. “I’m too pissed off about what hosting it in Qatar has done to the fixture list.”
The Lazio coach’s cigarette habit hasn’t taken the edge off it.
“I see it as an insult to football. If someone is able to explain to me what the Qataris have done for football, apart from their investment in PSG, I might change my mind.”
Sarri’s Juventus counterpart, Massimiliano Allegri, was more diplomatic.
“I’m a coach and when they tell me to play, we play. When they tell us to stop, we stop. It’s not like we can do anything about it anyway.”
It was like that in the spring of 2021 when the season was halted for three months by the COVID-19 pandemic, an experience still fresh in the memory and no doubt useful to clubs’ medical departments and fitness coaches.
Old plans for a second, abbreviated pre-season will come in handy again next month, although nobody can predict what effect this break will have on Serie A’s flow.
Napoli are eight points clear and running away with the Scudetto to such an extent that having a World Cup now doesn’t feel so out of joint. The title race seems done and dusted even if nearly two-thirds of the season remain to be played.
So why did Gazzetta dello Sport declare, “It ain’t over,” on Monday?
Well, Juventus in third have won six league games in a row. Inter Milan, who sit fifth, have taken 18 points out of 21.
And the champions, Napoli’s nearest challengers?
“Of course we still believe,” AC Milan technical director Paolo Maldini said after their stoppage-time winner against Fiorentina on Sunday. “Last February, we went into the Derby della Madonnina seven points behind Inter and we managed to win the league. We know it won’t be easy to keep this pace up until the end of the season.”
After all, history is not on Milan’s side. No one with a lead this big after 15 games has failed to win the title.
It has looked very easy at times for Napoli. Too easy. They were 3-0 up inside an hour again on Saturday before the upcoming World Cup and winter holidays allowed a level of complacency to set in. Udinese then scored twice and nearly left the Diego Armando Maradona with a point only to fall short.
“It doesn’t take much for everything to change,” Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti said. But his team keep surprising him. They’ve seen out complicated games, won away against Milan, Roma and Atalanta, coped with injuries to Amir Rrahmani, Andre-Frank Anguissa, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen.
“Napoli have only dropped four points,” Allegri observed. “They could potentially finish the first half of the season with 53 points, which means no one is winning the league this season with less than 90 points.”
Maybe the Serie A record of 102, set by Antonio Conte in his 2013-14 farewell season at Juventus before taking the Italy job, is in jeopardy.
Advanced metrics show Napoli are over-performing their xG but they are still top of Serie A in terms of xG difference and other key performance indicators.
Beyond Naples, hope rests on Inter beating Spalletti’s men at San Siro in the clubs’ first game back after the World Cup and winter break on January 4. Psychologically, it’d be interesting to see how Napoli react if that happens.
The competition should be sharper come 2023, too. Juventus will have ‘new January signings’ such as Paul Pogba and Federico Chiesa back in the team on a regular basis. Milan could yet rediscover the defensive solidity that underpinned last season’s title win, while summer signing Charles de Ketelaere has more to give.
The Champions League knockout phase may throw a spanner in Napoli’s works as well — Serie A’s last two champions had gone out of that competition in the group stage and were able to focus on domestic matters in the second half of the season.
And yet Napoli appear uncatchable.
Spalletti has won leagues before, in 2010 and 2012 with Russia’s Zenit Saint Petersburg. also He led Roma to a club-record 87 points in his final season there six years ago, a tally (obscured by the drama of Francesco Totti’s retirement) that would have been enough to win the Scudetto in two of the past three years.
Osimhen currently leads the scorers chart with nine (and would become the third Capocannoniere to play under Spalletti) while the defence was Italy’s joint-stingiest last season with 31 conceded.
It begs the question: should the league even come back after Christmas?
Joking aside, Napoli have exceeded expectations and Kvaratskhelia has been far and away the signing of the season following his move from Dinamo Batumi back home in Georgia, with honourable mentions going to his team-mate Kim Min-jae, Paulo Dybala of Roma and Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman.
What Drama! 🤯
Dybala’s fantastic effort clipped the bar and dropped in front of Nemanja Matić who thumps home a late equalizer for Roma 💥 pic.twitter.com/ZEzdQjWNHA
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) November 13, 2022
Right now, it would be a surprise if this season’s final top four are any different from last year’s.
Atalanta have lost four of their last five games. Roma are already too dependent on Dybala and fly to Japan for winter training winless in three league games, including a defeat in the Rome derby, and with Jose Mourinho in purge mode.
Nevertheless, four points are all that separate Juventus from Roma in seventh. The league is bunched up in some places and stretched out in others. Napoli are in a league of their own, but six teams are in contention for Europe. Ten are in midtable no-man’s land and the bottom three are already cut adrift.
Whatever your persuasion, the plight of two former champions, Verona and Sampdoria, in the latter category and with just five and six points respectively after 15 matches is desperately sad.
Both clubs could do with finding a buyer over the winter and have to draw inspiration from Salernitana’s great escape last season.
Unfortunately, the Harry Houdini of Serie A, Davide Nicola isn’t available to try to save them.
His next trick has been to turn Salernitana into a team who could finish in the top half of the table. They are 12th, two points behind 10th-place Fiorentina. Nicola has picked up where he left off after losing just one of the last eight games in 2021-22 and would have been talked about more had he not already done the impossible last season.
Along with Napoli and Udinese, Salernitana must rank as the team of the season so far, with wing-back Pasquale Mazzocchi establishing himself in an Italy squad that sadly won’t be at the World Cup.
Roberto Mancini will be presiding over friendlies against fellow non-qualifiers Albania and Austria over the next fortnight, and after helping Wilfried Gnonto become the youngest goalscorer in the history of the national team at age 18 back in the summer, he isn’t done yet.
True to style, he has called up Udinese’s 16-year-old playmaker Simone Pafundi on the back of his performances with the Under-17s (four goals and two assists in five appearances).
Born in March 2006, Pafundi was less than four months old when Fabio Cannavaro lifted the World Cup in Berlin. He’ll only be 20 when the US, Canada and Mexico co-host its next edition.
It’s still absurd Italy won’t be in Qatar, their second missed World Cup in a row.
Napoli’s start to the season, the prospect of Italy having its fourth different champions in as many years and the jinking Kvaratskhelia have proven a welcome distraction, so too have the crises at Juventus and Inter.
But now the World Cup is upon us, and Serie A can’t come back soon enough.
(Top photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)
Read the full article here