Out of nowhere, Napoli is facing what might be its biggest challenge yet.
Napoli has won so many games (30 of 37 across all competitions) and scored so many goals (91) to be the runaway leader in Serie A and a legitimate contender for the Champions League trophy, that one situation it hasn’t dealt with is responding to a heavy loss.
Yet that’s what the Partenopei have to deal with following a 4-0 rout at home by defending Italian champion AC Milan on Sunday.
“The concept of unbeatability is something you placed upon us. We know full well that we have defects,” coach Luciano Spalletti told the media on Thursday. “And now we know that from here on there are going to be very hard battles to bring home the scudetto (championship).”
Until the Milan defeat, Napoli fans had been casting aside superstitions and painting the city blue as if the team had already won the scudetto — replete with flags featuring “3″ on them to mark the team’s third Serie A title.
Diego Maradona led Napoli to its only two Italian championships in 1987 and 1990.
“Until we get the last point that we need, that’s all useless,” Spalletti said of the early celebrating.
What’s needed is a statement performance at Lecce on Friday before Napoli faces Milan again in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals five days later at the San Siro.
Is there a chance that Napoli might shift its focus to the Milan rematch too soon?
“If I think about Milan, I’ll be making the same mistake as those people saying we’ve already won the scudetto,” Spalletti said.
Serie A scoring leader Victor Osimhen remains unavailable for the Lecce game due to an injured abductor muscle in his left leg that kept him out against Milan, although Spalletti said the center forward could return in Milan.
While Napoli has a comfortable 16-point advantage over second-placed Lazio, some hardcore “ultra” fans of the club have been protesting lately over high ticket prices, and there was even a fight between two factions of Napoli supporters in the stands during the game against Milan.
“The atmosphere certainly didn’t help us,” Spalletti said. “We can’t go on without fans, so for those who want to create problems, it’s better to stay home. . . . Napoli is a soccer capital because of its fans.”
Despite the loss to Milan, Napoli could still clinch the title with five or more games to spare if its maintains its current advantage.
“We need 15 points, or five victories. I’ve been at the job for some time now and I know that there are times when the ball doesn’t roll well,” said the 64-year-old Spalletti, who has never won Serie A despite having coached the likes of Roma and Inter Milan. “We still have a job to finish.”
Napoli’s only other losses in Serie A were both by 1-0, to Inter in January and to Lazio a month ago.
Napoli was also beaten 2-0 by Liverpool in the final match of the Champions League group phase, after the Partenopei had already clinched a spot in the round of 16.
Otherwise, Napoli’s only other defeat in 2022-23 came against Cremonese on penalties in the Italian Cup.
“We’re a very strong squad, and we still will be if we’re able to show that on the field,” Spalletti said. “But if you’re not focused you risk letting opponents enter into your space. Milan showed in that game that they’re the champion of Italy. We didn’t show that we deserve to be the leader.”
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