When Napoli put five past fierce rivals Juventus in January 2023 in front of a euphoric Stadio Diego Maradona it accelerated their charge to a milestone title: Stephen Kasiewicz explains how things have changed for the defending Serie A champions since.

The rout that reverberated around Italy marked a stunning high point in Napoli’s historic third Scudetto success.

The Old Lady eventually sank to seventh in a forgettable campaign in which they were docked 10 points for financial irregularities related to player values.

The emphatic 5-1 win remains the stand-out result in Napoli’s season for the ages.

Yet the trajectories of the two clubs have differed wildly as they meet again in the Campania capital on Sunday.

The reigning champions have hovered just above mid-table and face the galling prospect of missing out on European football next term.

While the Bianconeri occupy a coveted Champions League spot in second place as the latest money spinning iteration of club football’s most prestigious competition launches next season.

There’s barely enough time left for Napoli to emerge with anything to show from a year wrecked by inadequate recruitment, dreadful coaching choices and a string of morale-sapping defeats.

It’s been a catastrophic turnaround after dominating the 2022-2023 edition of Serie A to such an extent that they finished 16 points clear at the peak of the classifica.

The Partenopei marched towards a glorious third championship after they stunned Juve under the lights at a packed Maradona.

The resounding 5-1 victory showcased everything good about Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli. A purposeful performance of high intensity pressing, swift interplay and devastating counters all set to a hypnotizing tempo.

The almost telepathic connection between Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia resulted in three goals with Amir Rrahmani and Eljif Elmas also on target.

Any prospect of a repeat result seems preposterous with Napoli still finding their feet under new coach Francesco Calzona.

Spalletti’s former assistant at least appears to have brought a modicum of stability to a squad left dazed and confused by the highly debatable methods deployed by both Rudi Garcia and Walter Mazzarri. The Frenchman replaced Spalletti but was a disaster from the beginning, while veteran tactician Mazzarri stumbled from one bad decision to another as Napoli plummeted down the standings.

President Aurelio De Laurentiis went to great lengths to blame himself for Spalletti’s departure and Napoli’s Annus horribilis in a highly detailed outpouring in front of the media. Yet the colourful film producer cannot be expected to shoulder all the responsibility for the failure to overcome teams that were soundly dismissed last term.

While his constant presence in the Napoli dressing room on match days can be viewed as questionable at best, an accomplished group of internationals have frequently let themselves down.

There’s no need to take a quantum leap into the convoluted universe of analytics when trying to explain why veterans can’t execute the fundamentals or make amateurish errors.

Unfamiliar team line-ups, formations, tactics and befuddling substitutions certainly haven’t helped. None of last summer’s fresh additions have noticeably enhanced the squad either.

In what is likely to be the final stage of Osimhen’s Napoli career – with cash-rich clubs from England and France willing to meet his €130 million release clause – the Nigerian forward still has a decisive role to play before departing Italy.

The 25-year-old was at his ruthless best as he struck a hat-trick in the 6-1 demolition of Sassuolo. Kvaratskhelia also netted twice against the most accommodating of opponents as the Neroverdi all but surrendered at Mapei Stadium.

While the Georgian winger has often been enveloped in frustration, nobody can question his perseverance or willingness to carve open defences despite being persistently fouled this term.

The magical attacking tandem glittered on a night to remember as they downed Juventus in front of an enraptured Neapolitan crowd in January 2023.

They must step up again as a resurgent Bianconeri target reprisal in the latest instalment of a rivalry which has only intensified in the last decade.


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