ROME (AP) – Below is a giant fresco by Diego MaradonaNapoli fans celebrated the Italian league football title as if they were at the game – singing, jumping and lighting flares.
On the other side of Naplesat the stadium now named in honor of Maradona, tributes to the club’s most emblematic player were omnipresent: his image on banners, flags and scarves, his number 10 on the back of shirts.
As Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti said after the Partenopei sealed their first league title since Maradona led the club to the 1987 and 1990 championships, the legacy of the late Argentina made the difference.
“These fans have seen great coaches come and go. They saw Diego Armando Maradona play and maybe his (impact) is felt in that success as well,” Spalletti said.
Unlike the Maradona years, however, this Napoli title was not about a single player but rather a well-managed unit that often overwhelmed opponents with stars in all departments: league leader Victor Osimhen at centre-forward, league assist leader Khvicha Kvaratskhelia left winger, passing expert Stanislav Lobotka at central midfield and physical presence Kim Min-jae at centre-back – not to mention their veteran coach.
Napoli won the trophy with a 1-1 draw at Udinese on Thursday.
Osimhen equalized for Napoli early in the second half as he redirected in a rebound after Sandi Lovric put Udinese ahead early on.
“I’m happy for all Napoli fans around the world,” said Osimhen. “No one deserves the scudetto more than the Neapolitans – more than us.
“I don’t care who scored, I just wanted to get the scudetto.”
Napoli advanced an insurmountable 16 points over second-placed Lazio with five rounds still to go.
Along with the 11,000 Napoli supporters inside and another 5,000 outside the stadium in Udine, northern Italy, a crowd of over 50,000 watched the match on giant screens at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in Naples.
“Napoli is for you,” Spalletti said. “There are people here who will be able to go through difficult times in their lives because they remember this moment. These people deserve all the joy.
In Udine, cheering fans flooded the pitch at the final whistle, while in Napoli there were fireworks and delirium.
“You always told me: ‘We want to win’, and now we won. We won all together,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis told the crowd at the Napoli stadium before embracing the mayor of Naples, Gaetano Manfredi.
De Laurentiis took over the club in 2004 when Napoli were declared bankrupt, restarting in the Third Division.
“It’s the crowning achievement of a dream that has lasted 33 years,” added De Laurentiis. “It was a long process.”
It is the first time that a club south of the traditional Italian football capitals of Milan and Turin have won the league since Roma won the title in 2001.
Napoli equaled the winning record with five rounds to go, shared with Torino (in 1947-48), Fiorentina (1955-56), Inter Milan (2006-07) and Juventus (2018-19) .
In the 52nd minute, Osimhen grabbed a rebound from Kvaratskhelia’s shot following a corner.
While celebrating his goal, Osimhen broke his face mask and the Nigerian striker had to play without him for a few minutes while he was fixed by Napoli staff on the sidelines.
It was Osimhen’s 22nd league goal this season and 46th of his Serie A career, equaling former AC Milan player and current Liberian president George Weah as Africa’s top scorers in Italy.
Thereafter, Osimhen – who admitted he would like to play in the Premier League one day – would not commit to staying with Napoli.
“I want to enjoy this moment for the rest of my life. Then after the season my other dreams can come,” Osimhen said. “But right now it’s not the time to talk about my other dreams. I wanted to win this. … For me, it’s just a moment.
Napoli had a brief time in the first half as Lovric found space in the box for a quick check and an angled shot inside the far post in the 13th minute.
Napoli dominated all season and didn’t lose in the league until they were beaten by Inter in January. A 5-1 win over Juventus nine days later left no doubt this was the Partenopei’s year.
Napoli, however, weren’t even considered a title contender before the season due to the departures of former captain Lorenzo Insigne, club record holder Dries Mertens and defensive stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly.
But Osimhen has become the most dangerous striker in the league, and dribbler Kvaratskhelia has done more than just replace Insigne on the left wing as one of the biggest revelations in Europe this season.
The title also gives Spalletti the honor he most coveted after previously managing Roma and Inter and winning two Russian league championships with Zenit Saint Petersburg.
Spalletti’s innovative style first showed promise at Udinese almost two decades ago when he led the provincial club to a fourth-place finish and a Champions League berth. Udinese coach Andrea Sottil played under Spalletti at Udinese.
“The fans deserve it,” said Napoli captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo, his hair colored Napoli blue during the locker room celebration. “It felt like we were playing Napoli today.”
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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