It’s easy to forget just what a mess Napoli were in when Gennaro Gattuso first walked through the door at the Stadio San Paolo.
When Carlo Ancelotti was sacked in December, the Vesuviani had just secured progress to the last 16 of the Champions League with a victory over Genk, which ended a nine-match winless run in all competitions.
Ancelotti’s final Serie A game in charge, a 1-1 draw with Udinese, left the club cut adrift in seventh place, seven points out of the European places and eight away from the top four, with almost half of the season gone.
There were no end of doubters about whether Gattuso, who led AC Milan to fifth place last term, was the right man to oversee the recovery operation. Slowly but surely, he’s changed their minds.
It wasn’t an instant success. A cynic might point out that it was only on Sunday, after having 15 Serie A games of his own in charge, that Gattuso managed to elevate the Vesuviani out of seventh and into the top six.
But that would be missing the point. Gattuso, after a difficult start in which he lost four out of his first five Serie A matches, has transformed Napoli from a talented but awkward and disjointed side into one with a real identity and rediscovered team spirit.
The coach has steadied the ship off the pitch, no easy feat in a season that has included a player mutiny against an enforced training retreat, which subsequently lead to legal threats from club president Aurelio De Laurentiis against his own players.
Then there was the never-ending circus around the future of talisman Dries Mertens, the club’s all-time top scorer. That was put to bed recently when the Belgian turned down interest from Chelsea and Inter to sign a new deal in the shadow of Vesuvius – in no small part thanks to the influence of Gattuso.
On the pitch, he’s got them playing nice football. In a 4-3-3 system that suits the players better, Napoli have been able to rediscover their swagger. Their victory over the Giallorossi was their sixth in the last seven league outings.
They beat Juventus and Inter during a run of seven wins in nine games before the break, and they’ve now caught Roma in fifth place.
That was in addition to their triumph in the Coppa Italia. Gattuso’s success in that competition shouldn’t be undervalued; it was his first major honour as a coach and the club’s first piece of silverware in six years.
By winning a trophy, Gattuso reached a major landmark in the space of six months that Maurizio Sarri couldn’t manage during three years in Naples.
Champions League qualification this season will almost certainly be a step too far, given the 15-point gap to Atalanta in fourth place, but it’s exciting to think what Gattuso will be able to achieve with this group when he has a full season to work with.
Zaniolo’s return a rare glimpse of light for Roma
Roma fans don’t have much to be cheerful about right now. The defeat to Napoli was their third in a row, and in that run of games they’ve scored just one goal.
Coach Paulo Fonseca has been targeted for criticism, while off the pitch a section of fans has been vocal in its criticism of owner James Pallotta amid uncertainty about the future of the club, the dismissal of sporting director Gianluca Petrachi and a bleak financial outlook.
But there was one light at the end of the tunnel for those of a Giallorossi persuasion on Sunday, as Nicolo Zaniolo made his much-anticipated return to the pitch after a lengthy injury layoff.
The 21-year-old, who has been out since rupturing his cruciate ligament against Juventus in January, came off the bench for the final 25 minutes.
While he was unable to alter the outcome of the game, the attacking midfielder looked encouragingly sharp with the ball at his feet.
Roma need his spark now more than ever. With the team leaking goals at the back and unable to produce them at the other end, Zaniolo’s creativity, energy and eye for goal could be the catalyst for the Lupi to get out of their funk before they spiral down the standings.
It’s telling that only two players – Edin Dzeko and Justin Kluivert – have scored more goals for Roma this season than Zaniolo’s six – despite the Italy international missing half of the campaign through injury.