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Feb 20, 2012

San Paolo's divine intervention

The debate is open, a meaningless one by the way: does the San Paolo stadium crowd really influence the outcome of matches? The answer is usually an appropriately resounding "yes", but it comes mostly from visiting journalists after glamour evening clashes against high-profile opponents, and the missing element is that despite the grandiosity of the oval cauldron, which can indeed be intimidating when full, the wide space between the stands and the pitch, which includes the notorious athletics track, takes something off the noise emanating from the crowd.

Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, Italy's best known movie producer, added some spice to the subject by telling Corriere dello Sport on Monday that he believes the home crowd will be his side's "twelfth man" against Chelsea on Tuesday - nothing new here, in fact a horrible cliché - and San Gennaro, the revered local patron saint, will be the "thirteenth", although this may cause an awkward theological debate on whether a) San Gennaro will have time to devote to Napoli b) a saint is technically a man, the inference being that He has to be something better than that.

All joking aside, De Laurentiis can afford to strut his stuff at Napoli, having taken over a club in Serie C and on the brink of extinction in 2004, just as Chelsea were starting their Premier League-winning campaign under Jose Mourinho. This week, the Italian side enter the Champions League knock-out stage amid torrid expectations and a pre-game hype that has to be unrivalled for a European clash in February. There are record gate receipts but not a record crowd, as a section is cordoned off, while the club are in fact under close scrutiny by UEFA for the behaviour of some of their fans. It was only a few days ago, after all, since eleven Napoli ultras were arrested on charges of assault on opposing supporters - among them, Liverpool's in 2010 - and the police at the end of a two-year investigation: in a practice which is loathsome but sadly far from uncommon in Italian football, some of those arrested had established friendly relationships with several players and in one case Fabiano Santacroce (now on loan to Parma) was spotted by investigators visiting the leader of the group, who was under house arrest, and bringing him Napoli jerseys. Bizarrely, Santacroce said "I knew he was under house arrest, but I thought he was a decent person", which may or may not reflect his view of the Italian judicial system.

Apart from the black sheep, which exist everywhere (those who can read Italian may want to take a look at "Il Teppista - Trent'anni maledetti a Milano", a book detailing the "career" of an Inter supporter), the majority of Napoli fans are simply counting down the hours to Tuesday's kick-off, as much for the anticipation of the side progressing to the quarter-finals as for the fact Chelsea are the opponents. The Premier League has a huge following in Italy and perhaps only Manchester United would have commanded a bigger response from the supporters.

Some inverse comparisons have even been made between Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri and Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas. At 50, Mazzari, it has been noted by some in the media, paid his dues by coaching at all levels of Italian football while his counterpart skipped the lower-division stages by being installed into the top job at Porto as soon as he left Jose Mourinho's shadow (which does not take into consideration the year he spent at Académica with great success), but there will not be a sideline sideshow between the two, as Mazzarri is suspended for both legs and will leave the in-game tactical decisions to his main assistant Niccolò Frustalupi, the 36-year old son of the late Mario, a scudetto-winner with both Inter in 1970 and Lazio in 1974.

Mazzarri, who replaced Roberto Donadoni in October 2009, has patterned Napoli in a 3-4-2-1 style that rarely varies unless the side is behind late in a match: it can then become a 4-2-4 or a 4-3-3 (but a 4-2-3-1 was also seen against Parma in October) with a consistent quality in that there are no set positions within the attacking trio. Edinson Cavani is the nominal centre-forward but can often be seen defending deep on either flank, which allows Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik, Napoli's regular choices as support strikers, to run into the spaces vacated by the Uruguayan whenever Napoli spring forward in numbers, as they often do as a fundamental of their tactics. Lavezzi, Hamsik and Cavani, who have scored a combined 35 goals in all competitions this season (add the six Goran Pandev scored in part-time duty), can almost be unstoppable when are on top form, and it looks indeed like Napoli are close to being in their best shape after consecutive wins in the Serie A in which they appeared fresher and sharper than during many indifferent stretches of the Serie A season, games they either lost (at Genoa, to Parma) or drew (at Novara and against Cesena) against inferior opponents.

Cavani can score with either foot and is good enough in the air to be a decent threat on crosses, which plays into the hands of Mazzarri's predilection for attacking full-backs. Andrea Dossena on the left and Christian Maggio on the right, with Juan Zuniga ready to come in for either of them, are among the Serie A's best in this skill, and in fact they can both slide back to a proper full-back position when Napoli switch to a four-man defence.

Gokhan Inler and Walter Gargano - Hamsik's brother-in-law by the way, having married his sister Michaela - are the regular starting midfield duo: Inler has perhaps not duplicated the fantastic form he'd shown for Udinese in the previous two seasons, while Gargano is the kind of player who seems set to be replaced by someone else each year than always finds a way back into the starting line-up by sheer willpower and tireless work in practice. He seems to have perfected the art of winning the ball and immediately springing a counter-attack either by running with it or better passing it quickly to team-mates swarming forward, Napoli-style, which is good enough to take the side to the next round regardless of any metaphorical 12th or 13th man.

It may or may not be up to San Gennaro to provide extra support then, as De Laurentiis said, but the contribution of other saints has recently been called into question. According to Corriere dello Sport, a small altar beating the holy images of San Gennaro, Padre Pio and the Virgin of Pompeii has recently been removed from the ramp leading out of the bowels of the San Paolo (Himself another saint, of course) to the home dressing rooms because, according to a straight-faced Mazzarri, "too many [opponents] were also touching them" for good luck on their way to the pitch.

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