Is this the end of the road for Mazzarri and Napoli?
In the constant carousel that is Serie A coaching appointments, the only man to keep his spot on the bench for any significant length of time has been Napoli’s Walter Mazzarri, currently the league’s longest-tenured coach since replacing Roberto Donadoni in October 2009.
Despite their excellent position in the table, there are whispers that Mazzarri’s time with Napoli is coming to an end after this season for a host of reasons, ranging from poor health, the alleged break down of his relationship with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis and simply needing a rest.
Now, however, with the team having not won a match since a 2-0 win over Catania on February 2, there is the feeling that a cycle has finished in Naples. The Azzurri have drawn four and lost three in addition to dropping out of the Europa League at the hands of Czech side Viktoria Plzen. Not only that, but Napoli are now nine points behind Juventus after once being as close as three points behind the Serie A leaders. Additionally, due to AC Milan’s blistering form, the Rossoneri are now only two points behind the Partenopei for second place, with Fiorentina lurking only five points back.
Napoli have achieved an incredible amount in Mazzarri’s three years with the club, twice flirting with title ambitions, a Coppa Italia in the cabinet, and very nearly qualifying for the Champions League quarterfinals. Not since the heady days of Diego Maradona have Napoli reached such heights. However, the squad are showing signs of staleness as Mazzarri has stubbornly stuck to his tried-and-true counterattacking 3-4-1-2 or variations thereof. After a certain period of time, squads do need a freshening up in personnel and ideas, with Napoli not doing especially well with the latter.
In spite of all this success, Napoli have a tendency to come up short when it looks as though they are about to break through. For example, during the 2010/11 season, Napoli were only three points behind Milan with 12 matches to go after defeating Catania 1-0. The next matchday saw the Neapolitans take on Milan at the San Siro; get a result, and they would be level with the Rossoneri atop the table. Inevitably, they lost convincingly 3-0.
Another example points to the next season in the Champions League. Napoli went into the second leg of their round of 16 tie with Chelsea 3-1 ahead after a fantastic performance at the San Paolo. Again, they failed to reach the next level, going down 4-1 in London. If they were able to hold their nerve, it would have been the furthest Napoli had ever gone in Europe’s premier competition.
At the start of this season, expectations were high for Napoli. Despite losing one of the ‘Three Tenors’ in Ezequiel Lavezzi, the return of wunderkind Lorenzo Insigne from Pescara, and the retention of both Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik, this was going to be the year Napoli would put up a sustained challenge for the scudetto. Napoli, have, more or less, done good on that promise, spending the majority of the season right behind Juventus, but never really looking as though they could leapfrog their rivals from the north. Napoli failed to capitalise on Juventus’s most recent loss a month ago when the Bianconeri slipped up against Roma 1-0.
With a chance to reduce the gap at the top from five to three points, Napoli could only muster a scoreless draw at home to Sampdoria. When the two sides met in a potential title decider two weeks later, Napoli again were only good enough to draw. Another case of flattering to deceive, and with the goals drying up in attack, the chance to surpass Juventus looks to have passed them by.
It is obvious to most of those following Serie A that Napoli do indeed possess a talented squad from top to bottom (a less eccentric goalkeeper might be in order, but that is a story for another day). If Mazzarri has taken the club as far as he can, what could a more determined, more attack minded coach do with these players? A couple of tweaks are certainly needed in certain areas, with said changes needing to start at the top.
Legendary Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann is known to have said that a coach’s third year at a club is “fatal” as his influence at a club starts to disappear. With Mazzarri now in the midst of his fourth season overall with the club, it appears he is past the point of no return.
Follow Frank Lopapa on Twitter: @fnlopapa