On a cold December night in 2008, Leo Messi received a square pass from Thierry Henry and proceeded to dink the ball over the on-rushing Iker Casillas with the precision of a neurosurgeon. As former Ballon D’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro crashed into the post in a futile attempt to stop the ball from crossing the line, the Camp Nou erupted, the scoreboard read 2-0 and the shift in power was sealed.
The Barcelona side that had been humiliated by 4 goals to 1 8 months before, after seeing their arch rivals lift the league title with games to spare, were now on top of the table almost midway through the season. 8 points adrift of their closest challengers and 12 points ahead of Madrid. The Barcelona revolution up to that point had been whispered in dark Catalan alleyways and was still in doubt, “how could a team who lost to Numancia really be special?” but after that game, it was bellowed from rooftops “Blaugrana are back”. In that moment, with the vanquishing of perennial foes who had claimed the last 2 La Liga titles, the confidence of the fans and more importantly the players and team staff sky rocketed and they rode that high to an unprecedented 3 trophies at the end of the 2008/2009 season and 6 trophies by the end of the year 2009.
Napoli’s current team draws many comparisons to that Barcelona team, under domination by a despised rival, they sought to overcome them, playing an aesthetically pleasing brand of football with a snazzy name. Tiki-taka meet Sarriball. Complete with a false 9 of their own.
After 12 wins from 14 games and a club record unbeaten run that stretched back to the previous season, Napoli went into a Serie A match against Juventus as favourites for the first time in a very long time. They were top of the table and lead the chasing pack by 2 points and the Old Lady who were 3rd on the table by 4 points. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally make a bold statement, but Napoli choked, as entertaining as it was, Sarriball was not enough to overcome the Bianconeri.
At the exact same gameweek that Barcelona made their biggest statement at the time, Napoli failed to do the same, they failed to find the extra gear to move beyond Juventus. An early goal from Gonzalo Higuain (of all people) drove a dagger in the hearts of wishful Napoli fans. They succumbed to their first defeat of the season and fell to second place, joining the rest of the Serie A to chase Inter Milan who appear to have hijacked Napoli’s Serie A revolution. A 0-0 draw against Fiorentina in their next fixture ensured that they remained in second place despite Inter holding Juventus to a draw at the Allianz stadium.
The defeat again questioned the mentality of the Sarriball cronies, for all their endeavor and breathtaking football, they have shown a propensity to cave in at important moments, their UCL loss to Feyenoord when they needed a win in hope that Shahktar Donetsk drop points against Manchester City to help them qualify from their UCL group was the latest in a line of moments where Napoli could and probably should have shown better mental strength.
Going forward it will surely be an area that the brilliant Maurizio Sarri will be looking to address and improve if Napoli are to go a step further and win more than just the hearts of football neutrals and purists worldwide. The season is still long and more of such moments are sure to come up, and as one of those who has been smitten by Sarriball, I can only hope it is a problem they resolve sooner rather than later.