Update: Napoli out to avoid 2016 repeat with Serie A halfway lead over Juventus

It was fitting that Marek Hamsik should grab the winner on Friday night: a record-breaking player adding a final exclamation mark to his team’s record-breaking year. He had overtaken Diego Maradona as Napoli’s all-time leading scorer in Serie A with a strike against Sampdoria just before Christmas. Now he had sunk Crotone with a cool left-foot finish at the Stadio Ezio Scida.

This was one of those nights when Napoli should have had a hatful, raining in 23 shots on Alex Cordaz’s goal. As it was, one would suffice to secure their 18th away win of 2017.

The Partenopei have been Italy’s best team of the past 12 months. They piled up 99 points – six more than Juventus – and 96 goals, most of any Serie A team since 1952. Napoli were also unbeaten away; a feat no other team could match across Europe’s top five leagues.

Better yet, they have been scintillating to watch. Just ask Pep Guardiola, who insisted in May that “Napoli play the best football in Italy”, despite the fact Juventus had just won the league. But there lies the rub. As wonderful as Napoli have been, they still do not have any silverware to show for it. Outside the minds of statisticians, football does not operate by calendar years.

The only title Napoli did earn in 2017 was the unofficial one they sealed this weekend. By beating Crotone, Hamsik and his team-mates sealed their place as Italy’s ‘campione d’inverno’ – winter champion – the team who sit top when half the games have been played.

It is a prize that exists more in the minds of journalists than the players themselves. When Lorenzo Insigne was asked about the prospect a few weeks ago, he replied simply: “I’d prefer to be a champion in the spring.”

And yet, there has been a strong correlation between the two. According to Il Mattino, more than 68% of teams who have led Serie A at the midway stage have gone on to win the Scudetto. Ten of the last 11 Serie A winners were winter champions too.

Ah yes, but which was the one team to buck that trend? Napoli themselves, just two years ago. It was Maurizio Sarri’s first year in charge, and his team was smashing records then, too, as Gonzalo Higuaín blasted his way to 36 goals in a single campaign. But a two-point advantage over Juventus after 19 games was nevertheless flipped to a nine point-deficit by season’s end.

Will history repeat itself this time around? Sarri continued to paint his team as the underdogs on Friday, saying: “We know that there are stronger teams than us.” But the word ‘Scudetto’ is no longer “una bestemmia” – a swearword – as it was in 2015.

It is realistic to acknowledge that Napoli do not have the same resources as Juventus. The fact Higuaín now leads the line for the Bianconeri stands as a vivid reminder of the gulf in spending power, but it is the champions’ depth that truly marks them apart. That point was brought home again on Saturday, as Paulo Dybala returned and dug them out of a hole against Verona.

The 24-year-old had not started a league game since the win at Napoli on 1 December – his omission blamed on poor form but with rumours circulating of a stand-off with management over his future as well. Only Juventus, in Italy, could deprive themselves of such a talent without risking a serious dip in form.

They dropped all of two points, against Inter, over the month. But when they needed Dybala again this weekend he delivered, scoring twice inside the final 20 minutes to turn a grim stalemate into a 3-1 win.

It is a stark contrast with Napoli, whose scarcity of alternatives up front became glaringly obvious as Insigne ground to a halt in late November through a combination of injury and fatigue. With Arkadiusz Milik not expected back from his latest knee injury for at least another month, the club is expected to add attacking reinforcements during January.

Perhaps those moves will determine Napoli’s chances of staying the course. That much is hard to predict. What we can observe, is that this team is – even without any additions – better than the one that came up short two years ago.

You can see it in the numbers, which show Napoli are scoring more (and spread more evenly between a wider group of players) and conceding fewer than they did then. They have more points, too, and would finish the season with 96 if they maintained their current pace. Only one team in the past decade – Antonio Conte’s 2013-14 Juventus – have gone beyond that.

More than that, though, you could see this team’s strength in the way they have weathered a tricky winter. Between Insigne’s pause, and dry spells for Dries Mertens and José Callejón, Napoli are not scoring as freely as they were, but have tightened up at the back to make up for it.

Friday was another frustrating day for their forwards, but once Hamsik scored they never allowed any risk of getting pegged back. “Two years ago, we would not have won a match like that,” he reflected. “We didn’t play our best but we took the points home with us.”

Add them to the mountain that Napoli accrued in 2017. It has been a majestic year. But can they parlay that now into something more meaningful?

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