The end of the current Napoli era is nigh, and tonight could mark their last chance to go out with a Scudetto bang.
Since taking over from Roberto Donadoni in 2009, Walter Mazzarri's reign at Napoli has never been boring. There have been tears of joy and sadness, great shows of jubilation and perhaps even more of frustration. And that's just in the technical area.
The Tuscan tactician has come to embody the spirit and madness of Naples and its football team, with the side's thoroughly entertaining -- and indeed erratic -- style, alongside his wild gesticulations and more than a few perplexing selection decisions.
Like any coach, he's not without his flaws. He's certainly not a tactical genius -- and would sooner leave the complex strategy up to his trusty assistant Nicolò Frustalupi. His continued adoration for the perpetually ineffectual Goran Pandev is baffling, and has been accused of being too rigid in his adoration of the three-man defence he keeps under his pillow at night.
And yet, he's overseen Napoli's best years since the 1990s, just a few seasons before they slipped down into the third tier in a great financial mess. The side Mazzarri moulded -- and, or course, the players Aurelio De Laurentiis has provided -- will be remembered as fondly as any calcio side of the current era, for their sheer offensive brilliance.
The talent within the attacking trio of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamšík and the dearly departed Ezequiel Lavezzi was unparalleled in Serie A -- and was perhaps not matched by any other club in the world. An attacking tornado tearing through the opposition defence, with Hamšík's creativity, Lavezzi's pace and skill and Cavani's deadeye finishing, it's hard to think of any side which had so much offensive talent at their disposal.
The players slotted into Mazzarri's system perfectly. And, while the Coppa Italia win last year -- their first since 1987 -- is an impressive feat, the constant frustration which comes as an occupational hazard of supporting Napoli -- and the frustration seen when the coach throws himself about the dugout with all the theatre of an amateur dramatist -- is resultant of the feeling they could've achieved much more.
But, at the moment, there's no time for regrets or reflection. The departure of Lavezzi hasn't been as catastrophic as one may have expected -- but it serves as an omen for the future. As much as one would like them to spend the rest of their days in Naples, there's little question that eventually Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamšík -- Serie A's top goalscorer and probably top performer respectively -- will leave. It could be as early as this summer.
What will have an even greater effect, will be the equally inevitable bidding farewell to Walter Mazzarri. That too, could be at the end of the season, with the coach having hinted at the possibility of a departure on multiple occasions. There is a regretful feeling that Napoli are reaching the end of this magnificent era; the end of the Mazzarri cycle.
However, just as there's no time for regrets, there's no time for tearful goodbyes. They could still yet rally round for one final push for the Scudetto which the San Paolo trophy cabinet is crying out for, 23 years since Diego Armando Maradona led them to their second and last crown.
Tonight will go a very long way to determining the outcome of the title race. With Juventus slipping up a few times already this season, Antonio Conte's side are currently six points clear at the top ahead of tonight's trip to the San Paolo. A win for the bianconeri and it's
hard impossible to see them throwing a nine point lead at the top. A victory for Napoli, though, and anything is possible.
Aside from the best team Serie A has seen in the last few years, Napoli's own mental state may be standing in their way. Their record against bigger teams is not much short of appalling. They come into tonight's game having played the other teams currently in Serie A's top five nine times in all competitions in the past year, winning just twice. Against all sides, they've not won in a month.
Yet, they're still in with a shout. Providing Mazzarri can instil belief in his troops, there's the chance the ever-inconsistent Napoli can take victory, roared on by 60,000 fans at the San Paolo. There's the chance that they can cap an amazing few years with a Scudetto.
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