Pitchside Europe

Can Mazzarri’s rage inspire Napoli to glory?


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Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri

It's half-time at San Paolo. Those standing in the tunnel can hear shouting. Lots of shouting. And it's originating from the home dressing room. Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri is angry. Furious even.

His team had been 2-0 up inside a quarter of an hour against Pescara. Gökhan Inler had found the top corner with a rising shot from outside the box and Marek Hamsik had done well to get his eighth of the season too.

It seemed like Napoli were to enjoy a relaxing Sunday afternoon. Then Pescara pulled one back. Bikir Bjarnason, on loan from Standard Liege, became only the third Icelandic player to score in Serie A, flashing a header beyond Morgan de Sanctis, as the league's bottom club rallied and finished the opening 45 minutes the stronger team.

Commentators said it was the best Pescara they'd seen all season. Is it any wonder Mazzarri lost his temper? He feared his players might be about to let another result slip.

"On other occasions we relaxed too," Mazzarri explained. "We lost four points against Torino and Milan for this reason." Napoli had been in the lead and on course for a win at home in each of those cases only to frustratingly let their opponents back into the game. Mazzarri wasn't prepared to allow it to happen again.

So he laid into his players and, lo and behold, got the reaction he was after. Cavani in particular emerged from the tunnel for the second half like a bat out of hell. He won himself a penalty, turning the Pescara defenders inside-out with a now-you-see-him now-you-don't kind of run into the box. Shortly after scoring his first, he got himself a second, and his tap-in went some way to calming Mazzarri down.

Pescara were under siege, as Napoli attempted 28 shots, the most in a Serie A game this season. Another struck from distance by an inspired Inler - the Man of the Match at the centre of everything with 120 touches of the ball - cracked in off the post and sealed a resounding 5-1 win.

It was like Napoli had turned back time. Not to before Bjarnason's goal when they'd started well, but to the 1980s. Back then Diego Maradona's Napoli made a habit of unloading on Pescara. There was a 6-0 in 1987 and an 8-2 the following year in 1988.

Memories of that period are never far away from the current Napoli team. Reliving it. Emulating its heroes aren't beyond this group of players. Cavani's goals on Sunday were his 82nd and 83rd in two-and-a-half years for Napoli or, to be more precise, 112 appearances.

Were El Matador to see out just another season of the contract he extended in the summer until 2017 then he would be expected to score the 33 goals required to overtake Maradona as the club's all-time top scorer.

"I'll try to reach him," Cavani insisted. "I would like to leave a mark on this city and also write my name in the club's roll of honour."

A coveted Scudetto to add to the Coppa Italia that he helped Napoli win last season would ensure his place in posterity. And, according to Cavani, it's their time. He has felt that way, oddly enough, ever since events in August when Napoli led twice against Juventus in the Italian Super Cup in Beijing only to be reduced to nine men and lose 4-2 in extra-time.

"It might seem strange to you," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport, "but that gave me the definitive certainty that this would be our year. Our start hasn't been bad at all, has it?"

Napoli have more points at this stage of the season than they did when they won the Scudetto in 1987 and in 1990. They are 12 points better off than a year ago too, they lie second and visit an out-of-sorts but third-placed Inter side next weekend hoping to repeat the 3-0 win they achieved on their last trip to San Siro.

A result like that would establish Napoli, if they aren't already, as the so-called "anti-Juve", the anointed challengers. They remain two points behind the champions and are poised for an overtaking manoeuvre should Juventus travel back from Donetsk and then on to Sicily tired and vulnerable enough for Palermo to do Napoli a favour.

There's a real sense that it's now - as in this season - or never for this group of Napoli players if they want to win the Scudetto. Mazzarri is aware of this. After three years in the job, the longest-serving coach in Serie A wants to go all-in.

"This summer I made a decision," Mazzarri revealed. "For the first time, after 12 years [in coaching], I wanted to go into a season with my contract due to expire at the end of it. It's my decision and I wanted to do this for a number of reasons. I will put more spirit into the job right until the end and then we'll see how I feel."

Like Pep Guardiola, he would like a sabbatical. And with some justification if reports are true of a health scare earlier this season — Mazzarri downplayed claims he underwent an angioplasty, saying it was nothing more than a routine heart check-up.

Like Guardiola, he maybe anticipates that the players are no longer as receptive to his ideas as they once were, that they have become complacent and set in their ways, that the team's stars - even if tied down to long contracts - won't be around forever.

By creating the suspicion that the manager is thinking of leaving perhaps they will want to show him they are still up for the challenge, still hungry and willing, if it really has to be this way, to give the manager one last hurrah to ensure he goes out on a high.

Napoli still have a long way to go. Overhauling Juventus - who beat them 2-0 in Turin in October and have only lost twice in Serie A in 18 months - can hardly be considered a cakewalk. Napoli have to sustain their title challenge for longer than they have in recent years.

They ran Milan close for a time in 2010-11 before tailing off towards the end. Last season, they prioritised the Champions League. Now Napoli are wishing Juve might do the same, that they might take their eye off Serie A and get distracted by the bright lights of Europe.

Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis is willing to reinforce the squad should the right opportunities present themselves once the transfer window re-opens this winter to make one last push for the title.

"It will be difficult for Juventus to maintain this pace if they go forward in the Champions League," the movie mogul mused. "This is an open league, a lively season. And we'll go for it right until the end."

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle

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