James Horncastle on why there's more reasons for optimism than ever where Rafa's men are concerned...
A brass band played the Italian national anthem tinnily. Interpretative dancers threw some shapes in white gloves and blue leotards. Paolo Rossi gave an interview, dressed in a suit and tie, beside a McClaren F1 car. It was all so very surreal.
Just what was going on? A Grand Prix? And where on earth was this? Monza perhaps? No, it was half an hour down the road at San Siro. The day was 13 April, 1986. It was a glorious sunny spring afternoon, and Milan were playing Napoli. Silvio Berlusconi had just rescued the club from the brink of bankruptcy, flying into Milanello in one of his helicopters as if it were Apocalypse Now.
The revolution had yet to start in earnest. Milan had suffered back-to-back defeats in Serie A. They were without Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti and Filippo Galli in defence so, as you do, coach Nils Liedholm decided to play Rossi, Mark Hateley, Pietro Paolo Virdis and Marco Macina all in attack. Left on his lonesome in midfield, Ray Wilkins pulled out what hair he still had left that afternoon.
Diego Maradona had been at Napoli for 18 months. Like a sherpa leading the way up Everest, he’d guided them to eighth the previous season. They’d climb to third by the end of this one, with a successful and historic assault on the summit coming the following campaign. A landmark over the course of that journey was this game against Milan.
Bruno Giordano opened the scoring early, getting in behind a bright-eyed and bushy tailed teenage Paolo Maldini to edge the ball past the Milan keeper. Then, little over 10 minutes later, Maradona doubled Napoli’s advantage, threading a shot from outside the box through a trio of defenders to find the corner. It was a magnificent strike.
Agostino Di Bartolomei would pull one back for Milan with a trademark sassata of a free-kick that rallied the home side, but despite coming under mounting pressure, Napoli managed to hold out for a famous win.
At full time Maradona strode over to the away end, looking up to the travelling Napoli supporters waving their blue flags there in the Gods, and punched the air with both fists.
But why reflect on this performance now more than 27 years later? Because, even though it gave an indication of the force Napoli were to become in Italy through the mid-to-late ‘80s, it was the last time they beat Milan at San Siro in Serie A.
After the triumph, silence
Napoli’s coach Ottavio Bianchi, a former Milan player, couldn’t manage another victory there, even as they claimed a first-ever Scudetto the season after. His successor Alberto Bigon, another ex-Milanista team-mate of Bianchi’s and whose son Riccardo is now Napoli’s director of sport, didn’t leave San Siro with a win in 1990 either, the year of the club’s last league title.
The arrival of Arrigo Sacchi then Fabio Capello, and all the others that have followed for that matter, made life miserable for Napoli under the one red and black glinting eye of the Madonnina. But there’s a growing sense that things might be about to change when they next encounter Milan at San Siro on Sunday. It’s been coming, after all.
Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli came close to ending this wait for a win away at Milan. They drew on their last couple of visits and finished ahead of them last season. One of the few asterisks alongside Mazzarri’s time in charge of Napoli, though, was this inability to beat their fellow contenders on the road.
Had they done so, then they would have run Juventus closer for the Scudetto in 2013. The appointment of Rafa Benitez this summer, Napoli’s “best signing” according to Antonio Conte, marked the logical next step towards realising that ambition.
Think of how they have progressed since Aurelio de Laurentiis bought the club, then in Serie C1 just a year shy of a decade ago. He hires Edy Reja who gets them out of the lower divisions and consolidates Napoli’s position in Serie A, making the UEFA Cup by way of the Intertoto.
His replacement Roberto Donadoni doesn’t work out but Mazzarri arrives, stabilises the situation and takes Napoli on again. They qualify for the Champions League, win the Coppa Italia and contend for a place on the podium in Serie A.
After Mazzarri leaves for a new challenge at Inter, De Laurentiis achieves a real coup by bringing in Benitez. The Spaniard’s CV amply demonstrates he can go even further, the aim being to win the Scudetto for the first time since 1990 and make Napoli a force to be reckoned with in Europe every year, rather than every other.
So well run is the club – profitable for six years in a row, its coffers flushed further by Champions League revenue in the 2011/12 season and this one, not to mention the player sales of Ezequiel Lavezzi last summer and Edinson Cavani this – that Benitez has had the resources to re-calibrate this team in line with his own vision of football; that is away from the 3-5-2 of Reja and Mazzarri, and towards a 4-2-3-1.
Adjusting to Rafa
A squad that had been Coppa Italia winners the season before last, runners-up in Serie A in May and therefore still hungry for success, was added to significantly. Napoli invested €85.5m on a pair of goalkeepers, Pepe Reina and Rafael, a centre-back, Raul Albiol, a left winger, Dries Mertens, a right winger, Jose Maria Callejon, and a couple of forwards, Duvan Zapata and record signing Gonzalo Higuain.
The expectation was that they would take time to adjust to a new style of play and, in particular, from a three to a four-man defence, but they’ve hit the ground running. Top of Serie A, they have a perfect record with three wins out of three.
A cynic might say that the fixtures have been kind to them with Bologna, Chievo (both bogey sides for Napoli in recent seasons, incidentally) and Atalanta all the kind of teams that they should be beating.
So Wednesday’s visit of Borussia Dortmund, last season’s runners-up in the Champions League, was billed as Napoli’s first real test. They passed. Higuain’s header and local boy Lorenzo Insigne’s Maradona-esque free-kick earned the club a 2-1 win – Napoli’s first over a German opponent since Stuttgart were outclassed in the first leg of the 1989 UEFA Cup Final.
While it’s true that Dortmund self-destructed – coach Jürgen Klopp and goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller were sent off – the second red in particular was provoked by the kind of questions Napoli were asking of them. Even Klopp was willing to concede that he’d been out-thought and out-manoeuvred by Benitez.
The result brought euphoria. Naples’ archbishop Crescenzio Sepe called it a miracle ahead of the Feast of San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint. “Yesterday evening against Dortmund was one of the greatest I’ve had since becoming President of Napoli,” tweeted De Laurentiis on Thursday. “Thanks to everyone. Let’s carry on this way!”
The momentum is certainly with Napoli ahead of Sunday’s clash with Milan, who have made an underwhelming start to the season. Shocked by newly promoted Hellas Verona on the opening day, they needed to come back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Torino last weekend.
The squad is ravaged by injuries, epitomised by the returning Kaka tearing his hamstring – although the Brazilian has made the grand gesture of telling Milan not to pay him while he recuperates. The former Ballon d’Or winner joins full-back Mattia de Sciglio, captain Riccardo Montolivo and strikers Stephan El Shaarawy and Giampaolo Pazzini in the treatment room.
Those absences and a number of others didn’t stop Milan somewhat luckily overcoming Celtic 2-0 at San Siro on Wednesday, but coping without them, particularly De Sciglio and Montolivo (though the latter has looked a shadow of himself when called upon so far this season) will be an altogether different and more difficult task against Napoli. There probably couldn’t be a worse time to face the Azzurri.
“We’re confident,” declared Benitez. “We’re going to Milan with the right determination, to win even at San Siro.” Yes, even at San Siro against Milan for the first time in 27 years.
Do that, make it five wins in five competitive matches and someone may consider re-spraying the walls of a Naples cemetery with the same graffiti that appeared there after they won the Scudetto: “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
James Horncastle will be analysing AC Milan v Napoli, exclusively live on BT Sport 2 from 7.30pm on Sun 22 Sep