When Rafa Benitez quit Naples for Madrid last summer, everyone naturally focused on how he would fare in his dream job. As for his replacement at Napoli, Maurizio Sarri, the most usual reaction was “who?”
Every so often Italian football throws up a manager who seemingly comes from nowhere to take charge of a big club. Massimo Allegri was largely unknown until he went to Milan and won the title before going on to take Juventus to the final of the Champions League. But even by Italian standards Maurizio Sarri’s career is unusual.
Until last summer he was in charge at Empoli, a small club from a small town mid-way between Florence and Pisa. When he took over they had four points from their first nine games — and that was in Serie B. The following season they won promotion and even more remarkably they managed to stay in the top flight, with the smallest wage bill and the least well-paid manager.
Prior to that, Sarri had spent his entire 20-year career in the lower divisions, mostly with amateur sides. Empoli was his first chance to make a mark in the game and he did it his way: with direct attacking football and a squad made up almost entirely of young local players.
He seemed the most unlikely choice to take over from Benitez, and he says he thought it was a leg pull when he got the call from Napoli’s larger-than-life owner Aurelio De Laurentiis.
It looked like a mistake when Napoli managed two points from their first three games. Diego Maradona declared Sarri was the wrong man for the job — “they need an experienced coach who knows how to command the group” — which in Naples is more or less equivalent to excommunication. At which point the team took flight.
Two 5-0 romps against Bruges and Lazio were followed by a 2-1 defeat of Juventus, a 4-0 win at Milan and another 2-1 against league-leaders Fiorentina. On Sunday a sixth consecutive win took Napoli to second place in the table behind Roma.
I better declare an interest here: I have never been the biggest fan of Rafa Benitez, whereas Maurizio Sarri spent 15 years of his life managing non-league sides within 20 miles of my home in Italy. He’s the salt of the earth, “an anti-star” in the words of the Corriere dello Sport. He believes passionately that a manager’s duty is to develop his own players, not buy them in.
He is also incredibly hardworking — at Empoli he is reputed to have devised 35 set-piece routines — and modest to a fault. A more admirable character would be hard to imagine, although he does have a weakness for cigarettes.
Of course it could all go wrong. Gonzalo Higuain, serial failure from the penalty spot last season, can hardly stop scoring at the moment. Sarri seems to have sorted out the defence, which was Benitez’s biggest weakness, but there may be problems if and when he has to rotate the squad. Napoli’s Europa League campaign has gone perfectly so far but he’s concerned about the fixture list. Next up are Palermo tomorrow.
In fairness to Rafa, things have been going well for him too. Level on points with Barcelona at the top of La Liga, Real Madrid have only conceded three goals. Their next game should be a stroll against Las Palmas, then come three matches to test them out: PSG in the Champions League followed by Sevilla and Barcelona.
But for the moment Benitez, like Sarri, is living the dream.
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