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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Napoli looking to sign off 2017 as winter champions but hope 2018 will be the year they end Juve's stranglehold on scudetto

Avoid defeat at Crotone on Friday and Sarri's Serie A leaders will have gone the whole year undefeated on their travels 

Napoli's Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamsik celebrates after scoring a goal against Sampdoria on December 23 2017, at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples. Carlo Hermann / AFP
Napoli's Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamsik celebrates after scoring a goal against Sampdoria on December 23 2017, at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples. Carlo Hermann / AFP

Italy’s campioni d’inverno is a title without a trophy. But it is a portent. The label, Winter Champion, gets assigned to whoever leads Serie A at the middle point of the season. That club, nine times out of 10 in the past decade, has gone on to be the owner of the scudetto.

Napoli are in a position to celebrate being at the head of the halfway hierarchy on Friday, and, because of the staggering of the fixtures on Matchday 19 of what has been a taut, compelling joust at the summit, to let their lead apply its pressure to the chasers for a few hours, too. Napoli go to Crotone, 17th in the table, the night before the rest of the matches, and they go there with several targets: avoid defeat and they will have completed 2017 unbeaten on all their travels in league matches.

Napoli are a point above Juventus, champions in the past six years and winter leaders in all but one of those. But Juve have inflicted on Napoli their one defeat so far and since then they have been subtly reminding the pacesetters of their renowned expertise in reeling in a scudetto. Two years ago, Napoli topped Serie A from Matchday 19 until well into February. Then the stealthy Juve beat them to leapfrog into first place, going on to win the title by nine points.

It is a haunting precedent, but many of the players who suffered that heartbreak now talk defiantly about the momentum they have gathered as a sign of their greater fortitude. Napoli bounced back to the top of the table this month after Internazionale deposed them briefly, and responded to dropped points against Juventus and Fiorentina in successive matches with victories against Torino and Sampdoria.

“We all hope 2018 will be the year,” the Napoli captain, Marek Hamsik told Sky Italia, “so far in 2017 we collected more points than anybody else even if that counts for nothing in terms of a title. But there are a lot of us who have been together a while now and that means we have grown together. Now is the time to reap the rewards for our work.”

Hamsik has just passed Diego Maradona, inspirer of the last Napoli to win a scudetto, back in 1990, as the club’s leading goalscorer. He struck his 116th against Sampdoria just before Christmas. Hamsik says he preparing a gesture to pay tribute to Maradona, the enduring idol of Neapolitans, but, teasing, will not reveal what it might be, or when.

To Maradona, and to many former Italian champions, Napoli have the look of scudetto-holders, equipped to bring an end to Juventus’s iron grip on the title. The Crotone manager Walter Zenga, who won Serie A as a player with Inter, and whose managerial career has taken him across various continents, and repeatedly to UAE, believes Napoli, who prioritised domestic challenges over a Uefa Champions League they departed in December, have the energy to sustain their advantage in the league.

He points to the intensity of Napoli’s game. “Their front players practically press up on the ball-boys, they are so driven,” smiled Zenga. “They have a coach in Maurizio Sarri who has done fantastic work there. I predicted they could be champions at the beginning of the season, and he didn’t like that. But they have shown themselves to be as strong as Juventus.”

The defending champions will have had 24 hours to digest Napoli’s result by the time they kick off at lowly Verona, while Inter, in third and rocked by defeat to AC Milan in the Coppa Italia on Wednesday, have a testing fixture at home to fifth-placed Lazio.

If anybody has been suffering vertigo, it is Inter. Having reached the top of the table, they promptly took one point from three games. In the most competitive title race across Europe’s major leagues, those are hard slip-ups to recover from.

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