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It’s the Coppa Italia final that narrative demanded: Maurizio Sarri leads his current team, Juventus, against his former team, Napoli.
And not just his former team: the one he’s most associated with, where he enjoyed his best days as a coach so far, even if he didn’t win a major honour there. Or anywhere in Italy, for that matter.
“He’s not only a legend but a sort of cultural icon in Naples,” said James Horncastle on Monday’s edition of the Totally Football Show. “They used to hold banners of him that looked like Che Guevara, he talked about “storming the palace” and staging a coup d’etat against the establishment, which were Juventus, and he is now part of that establishment.
“In the last encounter Napoli won, and Sarri caused a bit of controversy by saying “if I was to lose to one team, the one team I’d like to lose to is Napoli.”
Juventus remain the colossus standing astride Italian football, and although they’re only a point clear at the top of Serie A ahead of its resumption this weekend, they remain favourites to pip Lazio to the Scudetto.
That said, there is a sense that they haven’t been at their best under Sarri, as James Horncastle explains: “People are still waiting to see Juventus play 90 minutes worth of the sort of football we associated with Sarri at Napoli. At the moment it seems like we’re getting 90 minutes worth of the football we associated with Sarri at Chelsea.”
What of Napoli. They got past Inter to make this final, largely thanks to a slightly unexpected source, David Ospina. It was particularly unexpected after he somehow contrived to allow a Christian Eriksen corner slip through his legs and into the net, but he went on to not only make a string of brilliant saves but also set up the goal that saw Napoli qualify. But there is a catch, as James Horncastle pointed out:
“Ospina was absolutely key to Napoli going through: he made four critical saves, particularly one from Eriksen in the 82nd minute. But of course, he won’t be at the final, because he also got booked for time-wasting. An absolute rollercoaster of emotions for him, and it looks like Rino Gattuso will have to go to the guy he essentially dropped in favour of Ospina, after a defeat to Inter in January – Alex Meret. That’s going to be one of the variables we’ll see in the final in Rome.”
It’s been quite a turnaround for Napoli, from the mess the was the mutiny among their players at the back end of 2019, threats of legal action and the dismissal of Carlo Ancelotti. But under Gennaro Gattuso, they’re one game away from a major trophy.
Could they win it? They’ve beaten Juve before this season, after all. In fact, James Horncastle is pretty confident they can:
“I think Napoli are favourites, because really they’ve got nothing to lose. The way Gattuso has completely shifted the mentality within the squad, away from all the negativity we saw in December, the fracture between the dressing room at the board. It looked beyond Ancelotti [to repair it], and it looked an insurmountable task for his replacement.
“But Gattuso has managed to do that. He’s simplified things: he’s playing a 4-3-3, he’s got every player in their preferred position, so Insigne for example on the left wing, Fabio Ruiz on the right side of midfield, there was the change of goalkeeper which seemed to make them a little more secure (even though Ospina can concede from corner kicks. They’ve also played more counter-attacking football than we’ve associated Napoli with for some time, and they’ve got the players to do that – Insigne, Mertens, Callejon – as we saw in the goal that sent them through to the final.
“Juventus have the depth and the higher talent ceiling, so you would expect them to win, but I think it’s going to be a very competitive game. Napoli have been so able to raise their game on the big occasion, as we’ve seen over the last six months.”
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