Napoli poised to join northern giants at summit

ROME - Italy's southern capital Napoli could join AC Milan at the top of Serie A on Sunday if they defeat lowly Catania at home and Milan slip up in a testing away fixture at Chievo Verona a few hours earlier.

Last Saturday's 2-0 defeat of Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, which maintained the three-point gap between AC Milan and Napoli, was significant not only for it being Napoli's first win there in 17 years but also for the clinical manner in which victory was achieved.

Since Diego Maradona inspired the Azzurri to a second scudetto in three glorious years in 1990, Napoli's fall had been as spectacular as its sudden rise under the lavish presidency of Corrado Ferlaino.

Bankruptcy led to demotion and in 2004 the imposing San Paolo stadium was hosting matches in Serie C but now the tide appears to have turned once again for the city's passionate football followers.

Bought by the sometimes outspoken Neapolitan film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, son of Hollywood producer Dino, the club has profited by investing prudently and recorded successive promotions to once again rub shoulders with Serie A's big boys.

Taking over the reins from Edy Reja, following Roberto Donadoni's brief spell in charge, Walter Mazzarri has in little more than a year crafted a side who for all their individual talent are perhaps best epitomised by team strength.


And just as in the glory days when Maradona, Giordano and Careca provided fantastic inspiration, the new Napoli has a strong South American element at its heart.

Already boasting the talents of Argentine Ezequiel Lavezzi and midfield dynamo Walter Gargano of Uruguay, the off-season signing of another Uruguayan, Edison Cavani, appears to have given Napoli the attacking spearhead De Laurentiis had long been searching for.

Last weekend Cavani, who was never considered an out-and-out striker by former club Palermo and given only a bit part by Uruguay at last year's World Cup, once again stole the headlines with a double, bringing his league total to 20 in the top goalscorers' table.

"Napoli are good enough to win the title but only if they can keep up the same pressure on teams," Lorenzo Rossi, head of the leading Napoli fansite, told Reuters.

"Spring is where the scudetto will be won and lost. But whether Napoli have the squad strength to compete with the northern giants is more open to question."

Argentine Lavezzi, whose pace and dribbling skills have been pivotal to the side's success, looks set to miss the next three games including the all-important clash with Milan on February 28 after television replays showed him spitting in the direction of Roma defender Aleandro Rosi.

"Losing Lavezzi is a huge blow and there's no one to replace him on the bench," said Rossi. "And while I'd say Cavani is possibly the best forward in the world at the moment, he's no Maradona."