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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Napoli v Manchester City: Sergio Aguero on cusp of landmark in a city where his former father-in-law Diego Maradona is revered as a deity

Argentine is tied with Eric Brook's mark of 177 City goals, how fitting it would be to score the record goal against a Napoli team where his countryman's graffitied murals decorate the city

Diego Maradona, right, in action during the second leg of the Uefa Cup final against Stuttgart at the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart, Germany. Napoli won 5-4 on aggregate. Getty Images
Diego Maradona, right, in action during the second leg of the Uefa Cup final against Stuttgart at the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart, Germany. Napoli won 5-4 on aggregate. Getty Images

A significant anniversary was observed on Monday, marked with special reverence in South America and the south of Italy. Twenty years ago, October 30, 1997, the man many consider the greatest footballer of the last half a century retired from playing.

And if there can be lively arguments about whether or not Diego Maradona really was the most talented individual to kick a ball in the age of colour television, it is best not voice them too loud in Naples.

Around Napoli’s San Paolo stadium, an arena not greatly transformed since the 1990s heyday of Maradona, a visitor can hardly avoid him, even if it is two decades since he recognised, at the age of 37, that a body bruised by rugged man-markers, deteriorated by pain-killers and by some illegal substances, was no longer capable of the balletic, powerful brilliance that had made him a superstar. His face and name are everywhere, on graffitied murals around the stadium, on scarves, on pocket-sized amulets. In Naples, Maradona is the brand that keeps on giving.

Currently manager of UAE First Division club Fujairah, Maradona played for Napoli for six years. In that time the club won their two Italian league titles and their only major European trophy. The fact that the current Napoli, who host Manchester City in a heavyweight Uefa Champions League contest on Wednesday, sit on top of Serie A right now only fuels nostalgia for the Maradona epoch.

This Napoli know they have no player with his out-of-this-world qualities, so whenever he utters the slightest endorsement of how well a club he genuinely loves is performing it is heard as a great blessing.

At the San Paolo on Wednesday, another milestone is imminent, not the anniversary of a great career’s end, but recognition of a defining contribution to another club’s finest era. This landmark would be appreciated by members of the Maradona family. Sergio Aguero, who, like his Argentine compatriot Maradona, has marked forever the rise of a club who play in sky-blue jerseys, needs one more goal to become City’s most prolific scorer of all time. Aguero is tied with Eric Brook, who played in the 1920s and '30s, on 177 goals.

Diego Maradona blows kisses to Napoli fans in the San Paolo in 2005, after ending a 14-year absence to play in Ciro Ferrara's testimonial. Associated Press
Diego Maradona blows kisses to Napoli fans in the San Paolo in 2005, after ending a 14-year absence to play in Ciro Ferrara's testimonial. Associated Press

To reach 178 in Naples would be poignant, not least for Aguero’s son, Benjamin, who is old enough, at eight, to appreciate what the San Paolo represents. Benjamin Aguero is Maradona’s grandson, born when Diego Maradona was both father-in-law and boss to Aguero, while Maradona coached Argentina to the 2010 World Cup and Aguero was the partner of Giannina Maradona, Diego’s eldest daughter.

Inevitably, Aguero has heard plenty of stories of Maradona at Napoli. “No one could have changed the fortunes of Napoli, or Argentina, in the way he did,” Aguero said shortly after he joined Manchester City, six years ago, and comparisons between the two were suggested. After all, both he and Maradona were stars taken on by clubs with a hunger to break a glass ceiling: Napoli longed for a major trophy when they signed "El Diego" in the late 1980s, City were the same when they recruited Aguero 2011.

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He delivered. Aguero’s time at City has included two English league titles, his club’s first since the 1960s. And, yes, with his low centre of gravity, his courage and his dazzling finishing, he has some of the technical gifts of his former father-in-law.

When Aguero played for City at Napoli the last time the clubs met in Italy, he was cheered onto the pitch by Neapolitans. That was soon after he joined City, in 2011. He only got nine minutes, as a substitute, at the San Paolo in a 2-1 defeat for the visiting club.

Six years on, in his 30th year, and with all those City goals, Aguero again finds himself wondering whether he will start, or wait on the bench. Since returning from a rib injury – sustained in a car accident last month – his manager Pep Guardiola has named Aguero just once in his initial XI and three times as a substitute.

Sergio Aguero has scored 177 goals for Manchester City, a record he shares with Eric Brook. Nigel Roddis / Getty Images
Sergio Aguero has scored 177 goals for Manchester City, a record he shares with Eric Brook. Nigel Roddis / Getty Images

Brook’s record has lingered in his sights a while longer than it might have and Aguero has sometimes looked frustrated watching younger men, such as Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling convert the many chances Guardiola’s side create.

But if he makes his history at this most resonant venue, beats that long-standing landmark in the heart of Maradonaland, he may just feel the timing was perfectly designed.

Listen to Ian Hawkey speak ahead of the Napoli v Manchester City game