As getting over the line goes, Napoli have achieved the holy grail after clinching a historic Serie A title following an epic campaign that has seen them evolve from chronic challengers to run-away champions.
Indeed, Luciano Spalletti’s side have been the team to beat right from the start of the season after an 11-match winning streak and going unbeaten in the first 15 games of the campaign. Their first defeat away at Inter Milan preceded another eight-game winning run to go 18 points clear at the top.
The Neapolitans needed only a point from Thursday evening’s game at Udinese to be crowned champions, but the hosts threatened to spoil the title party when Sandi Lovric put them ahead after 13 minutes.
Victor Osimhen struck yet another important goal to secure the all-important point and spark wild celebrations among over 10,000 fans at the Dacia Arena as well as the capacity crowd watching on at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
The Partenopei are deserved winners of the Scudetto after their attractive, attacking brand of football made them unstoppable and endeared them to neutral fans across Europe. The pitch invasion at the final whistle was a release of emotions for ecstatic Neapolitans who were witnessing a significant moment in their club’s history.
Remarkably, this is the first league title won by a club south of Italy’s traditional heavyweights – Milan and Turin – since Roma’s triumph in 2001.
The manner of dominance is also notable as the 16-point difference between Napoli and second-placed Lazio is unprecedented with no side ever winning the title with more than five games to spare.
After Juventus’ nine-year run of title wins ended in 2020, Napoli’s triumph in 2022/23 threatens to spell a new era in Italian football.
Don Diego would be proud
This Scudetto is the first in Naples since Diego Maradona inspired them to two league championships in 1986-87 and 1989-90. The legendary Argentine is regarded as an honorary saint in the city such that his magical exploits have been immortalised to date as Napoli’s home stadium was renamed in Maradona’s honour following his death in November 2020.
So how did the class of 2023 recreate the exploits of unforgettable heroes?
There is no doubt that much of this success is owed to the Napoli manager who was able to get a tune out of his unfancied players and give them belief and a winning formula.
At 64, Spalletti becomes the oldest manager to win Serie A and it has been a long journey from leading Empoli to consecutive promotions from Serie C to Serie A, taking Udinese to the Champions League, using a false-nine system to win back-to-back Coppas Italia at Roma, before profound success in Russia with Zenit Saint Petersburg was followed by trophyless stints at Roma and Inter Milan.
In total, it has taken 553 matches for Spalletti to conquer Serie A and he was proud of his career path after finally clinching top spot.
“I have not travelled around in first-class looking out of the window, it was by hitch-hiking! “So, this Scudetto… repays you for all the sacrifices that you made over the years.
Those sacrifices were worth the wait considering the amount of rebuilding Spalletti had to oversee this season.
How the Winning Machine was built
The start to the current campaign was full of upheaval as former captain Lorenzo Insigne, all-time leading goalscorer Dries Mertens, Arkadiusz Milik, David Ospina and Faouzi Ghoulam had all departed on free transfers; while Fabian Ruiz went to Paris Saint-Germain and Kalidou moved to Chelsea.
The departure of numerous stalwarts upset the fans and Koulibaly’s departure in particular left many concerned, with uncertainty over how Kim Min-Jae would replace the Senegal captain.
Nevertheless, the former Fenerbahce defender quickly lessened those fears with his speed, anticipation and reading of the game to allow Napoli to set up a higher defensive line knowing they had Kim behind them. The South Korean enjoyed a formidable partnership with Amir Rrahmani as they clocked up the best defensive record in the league.
Further forward, two players have personified Napoli’s sensational rise up the ranks more than most.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Victor Osimhen emerged as arguably the most dangerous attacking duo in European football as they registered 51 of Napoli’s 69 league goals between them.
The addition of the previously unknown Georgian initially brought some unpredictability as his ruthless dribbling, nimbleness and innate eye for goal earned him the nickname ‘Kvaradona’ by the Napoli faithful.
The pair of Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia provided the flair, determination and cold-bloodedness required to ignite their title charge. As they gave the attack an extra bite with a league-leading average of 5.42 shots on target per 90 minutes, more than the 4.89 recorded last season.
The Nigerian, for his part, has symbolized a hybrid version of the classic centre-forward combined with a modern striker. His extraordinary presence has made him the favourite for the Capocannoniere Award with 22 goals.
For all his courage, excellent aerial ability and knack for scoring goals, the 24-year-old has managed to improve during the season. Osimhen’s determination is a big aspect of his game but his movement on and off the ball has now been conditioned to certain areas of the pitch.
Spelletti has fine-tuned the team to Osimhen’s strengths and his fitness, which derailed his first two seasons in Italy, has been managed better.
With exceptional strikes of the ball and gravity-defying headed goals, Napoli won several matches they had no business winning and it is safe to say the Scudetto would have been a lot harder without the tireless marksman.
Indeed, only Erling Haaland has been better in Europe’s top five leagues.
As is common with most winning teams, the understated components are often less mentioned and an important ingredient to Napoli’s success is their hard-working and inventive midfield consisting of Stanislav Lobotka, Piotr Zielinski and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa.
The trio played a prominent role in Napoli’s rise to the top as their qualities gave the team the confidence to dominate possession for long spells of games. Gli Azzurri were able to control matches more and be patient in the build-up phase before destroying opponents to submission.
Lobotka exhudes this technical superiority at the base of midfield, creating a platform for Zielinski and Zambo-Anguissa to attack spaces in the forward areas by covering at the back when in possession.
Special mention must also go to captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo who was influential with his attacking presence from right full-back as well as off the pitch.
However, the most impressive element of Napoli’s incredible feat is that few saw them finishing in the top-four, meaning they have surprised many by comfortably winning the league.
Although good football became synonymous with Napoli during Maurizio Sarri’s time in charge between 2015 and 2018, they only ever came close on a couple of occasions.
Therefore, Spalletti deserves all the credit for discovering a winning formula and instilling a winning mentality in his players, against all the odds.
While a number of controversies have again tainted the reputation of Italian football recently, Napoli enhanced that image on the pitch with their scintillating domestic performances alongside a famous Champions League run that culminated in their first quarterfinal appearance.
There may be an all-italian UCL semifinal this season, but the boys from the Maradona truly captured a host of admirers from across Europe.