Napoli boss Luciano Spalletti has his best chance yet of finally winning Serie A and Italian football expert James Horncastle gives us an insight into the "teacher of football"

The Partenopei are in the driving seat for their first Scudetto in 33 years and host Spalletti's old club Roma in Sunday's Derby del Sole, live on BT Sport.

By Alex Bowmer Published: 27 January 2023 - 9.43pm

It feels like the most appropriate of fits.

A giant of European football looking for their first title in 33 years, having suffered several near misses, and a manager - partly responsible for their latest heartache last season - who has yet to win a Serie A crown. 

It appears that Napoli and Luciano Spalletti may finally taste glory, with the team sitting 12 points clear of second-placed Milan at the halfway stage.

They've captivated audiences at home and abroad with an exhilarating brand of football, having also secured passage to the Champions League last 16, where they will face Eintracht Frankfurt - live on BT Sport

This is despite the squad undergoing a radical overhaul in the summer following the club's implosion last April with the title in sight.

Club legends Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and the Partenopei's record goalscorer Dries Mertens all left, along with the likes of David Ospina, Fabian Ruiz and Arkadiusz Milik. 

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On paper, the mass exodus appeared an incredibly risk strategy to adopt. However, as Italian football expert James Horncastle explains, this bold approach by Spalletti is entirely in keeping with his way of doing things. 

"Spalletti is one of the most influential coaches of his generation. He was influencing changes in the game 15 years ago," he says.

"When I was living in Rome, he was the Roma coach and moved Francesco Totti from playing as a left winger or a No 10, to playing as a false nine and Totti all of a sudden became the Golden Boot winner, started scoring lots of goals [and] finished his career as the second all-time top scorer in Serie A.

“It's not surprising to me that he's leading a title campaign”
- Horncastle on Spalletti

"Other clubs across Europe took inspiration from that.

"You think of Man United's front line, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez, you think of, most famously, [Lionel] Messi at Barcelona, so Spalletti's someone who is a great teacher of football, makes players better, can reinvent them. It's not surprising to me that he's leading a title campaign.

"Even though people will say he’s never won the [Italian] league before, he did win the league in Russia with Zenit Saint Petersburg, so he knows what it takes to win a championship."

Francesco Totti celebrates scoring against Parma in February 2007
Already a brilliant player, Francesco Totti's game to rose even greater heights under Luciano Spalletti's guidance

Spalletti came agonisingly close to winning Serie A on two occasions at the Stadio Olimpico, first in 2007/08, when Roma - the team Napoli face on Sunday evening - went into the final day of the campaign just a point behind Inter.

But the Nerazzurri's 2-0 victory at Parma meant that the Giallorossi's result at Catania would prove immaterial (it finished 1-1 for those interested). 

Then, nine years later, in his second spell at the capital club, the title race went down to the penultimate weekend of the campaign and despite Roma recording a club-record points tally (87), they finished second best to a dominant Juventus. 

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Fast forward to this season, and after bidding farewell to players who had been the backbone of the side for the best part of a decade, Spalletti recruited widely. 

He brought in young centre-back Leo Ostigard and left-back Mathias Olivera from Brighton and Getafe respectively, along with the loan captures of Tottenham outcast Tanguy Ndombele, dynamic Sassuolo forward Giacomo Raspadori and Hellas Verona marksman Giovanni Simeone. 

However, three of his most crucial additions have proved to be Kim Min-jae, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, the latter of whom had impressed on loan from Fulham last term.

Dries Mertens and Kalidou Koulibaly with the Coppa Italia trophy after beating Juventus in the 2019/20 final
The likes of Dries Mertens and Kalidou Koulibaly won domestic silverware with Napoli - but never Serie A

Horncastle gives his view on why the class of 2023 might so far be outperforming their predecessors.

"There's some debate about whether that 2017/18 team was better than this team," he says.

"Players like Koulibaly, Insigne, who was the hometown kid, and Mertens won cups, but they didn't win the league.

"The club moved those guys on and so you don't have the baggage that comes from players who have been around, haven’t won [the league], feel the weight of expectation, the disappointment of falling short.

"This is a fresh team, which is fearless. There's a novelty factor as well, certainly in the first third of the season.

"Defenders didn't really know how to deal with someone like Kvaratskhelia. It's just a really well assembled team.

"They're a team that plays vertical a lot and they've got these players who can beat you in 1v1s, which in Italy, where a lot of teams defend man-to-man, is helpful to have players who are very good at that."

Kim Min-jae in action for Napoli against Salernitana
Kim Min-jae has slotted seamlessly into Napoli's defence and is adept at both the technical and ugly sides of the game

The acquisitions of Kim and Anguissa have made Napoli extremely hard to get through. 

Kim has the highest number of accurate passes in the league per 90 minutes (71), while also leading the way for clearances and blocks per 90 at Napoli.

He and Anguissa are top of the pile for Spalletti's men for interceptions per 90, with the Cameroonian excelling when it comes to winning possession in the final third. 

"Kim had big shoes to fill in Koulibaly," Horncastle continues. "Koulibaly was an adopted Neapolitan, a player many people in the dressing room considered to be the captain.

"Insigne wore the armband, but Koulibaly was the guy who led by example. Kim was very close to leaving Fenerbahce for Rennes and Napoli were able to sneak into that deal and sign him.

"He's really good on the ball. He's a very proactive defender; he allows Napoli defend high up the pitch.

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa takes on Juventus' Adrien Rabiot
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa provides both defensive solidity and a real outlet in beating the press and mounting attacks

"The surprise has been Anguissa, given his travails with Fulham in the Premier League, but he is again one of those players who's well built but very lithe, very agile.

"He's able to wriggle away from pressure really well and get behind Napoli's opponents' midfields.

"Anguissa in some respects is emblematic of the skillset of this Napoli team. It's that ability to take the ball under pressure and get away from your man and then turn the tables. He's been a really big success."

However, Horncastle has two other names in mind when it comes to the league's player of the season so far. 

"In terms of player of the season, it's between Kvaratskhelia and [Victor] Osimhen, [Serie A's top scorer this term].

"Kvaratskhelia's been a revelation really. There's nothing he can't do. He can score with his left, right, score with his head.

“Kvaratskhelia's been a revelation really. There's nothing he can't do”
- Horncastle

"He's really unpredictable and it's surprised me that in the January transfer window, [Mykhailo] Mudryk, who is a talented player, went for a fee close to €100m, and there hasn't really been a lot of talk about Kvaratskhelia.

"I think Kvaratskhelia's done more at a high level than Mudryk. He is the one major difference maker this season, which again is why Napoli have surprised people."

The only player with more Serie A goal involvements than Kvaratskhelia's 14 this season is Osimhen (16), and the Georgian genius, nicknamed "Kvaradona" for the similarities in his playing style to club icon Diego Maradona, has created the joint-most big chances in the league.

Maybe 2022/23 is the time for Napoli to finally clinch the Serie A title, but for now, the focus is on a dangerous Roma side and the Derby del Sole, which translates as Derby of the Sun, contested by the two biggest clubs outside northern Italy. 

Paulo Dybala jumps into the arms of Tammy Abraham after Abraham sets up Dybala's second against Fiorentina
Napoli will be wary of the threat that Tammy Abraham and Paulo Dybala pose

Jose Mourinho's men have taken 10 points from a possible 12 since the turn of the year, with Tammy Abraham and Paulo Dybala combining to devastating effect.

Despite those threats, Napoli will remember the reverse fixture fondly, as Osimhen shook off Chris Smalling and rifled past Rui Patricio for a late winner.

The Nigerian's close control, aerial prowess and poacher's instinct have been evident throughout the last few months, coming to the fore in the recent 5-1 thrashing of Juventus as he and Kvaratskhelia ran riot. 

Spalletti's record in this upcoming fixture when in charge of Roma was exceptional, picking up 16 points from seven games. 

Now, on the other side of the fence, he has the chance, with his band of history makers, to write a glorious new chapter in Napoli's story and get the Serie A monkey off his back. 

Watch Napoli vs Roma from 7.45pm on Sunday 29 January, live on BT Sport 1.