Napoli travel to troubled Inter Milan on Wednesday, with two fiery, under pressure, coaches out to prove they have what it takes to sustain a Serie A title challenge this season. Napoli’s season appeared to be heading for trouble just as it was getting started. After their 3-1 home defeat by leaders AC Milan on Nov. 22, there were reports of a heated confrontation between coach Gennaro Gattuso and his players.
The club denied any such meeting had taken place. Three days later, they were rocked by the news of former player Diego Maradona’s death, with the whole city in mourning.
“Sometimes they (the players) love me, but I bet that sometimes they take out my picture in the morning and spit in my face,” Gattuso said after his side’s 2-1 win over Sampdoria on Sunday. “But it’s part of my job.”
The Neapolitans are unbeaten in their last six games in the weeks following Maradona’s death, having won all three of their league matches ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Inter.
Victory would lift Napoli into second in Serie A above Inter, providing Juventus, on the same number of points, do not better their goal difference should they beat Atalanta on Wednesday.
But it is not just Gattuso who has had a tough time.
Inter may have won their last four successive league games, but a 0-0 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk last week meant Antonio Conte’s side finished bottom of their Champions League group.
Conte reacted angrily to questions over Inter’s inability to beat a side they had thrashed 5-0 in the Europa League semi-final last season. “In fact, they (Shakhtar) approached that match in a different way. Think before you ask the questions,” he said.
Conte then went on to clash with former Juventus, Real Madrid and England coach Fabio Capello after the match on Italian television.
A win at Cagliari at the weekend eased the pressure slightly on Conte. However, the manner of the performance, having to come from behind with victory secured by three goals in the last 15 minutes, did little to silence the doubters.
Taking all three points against Napoli can keep the pressure on Milan at the top of the standings, but also take the heat off Conte himself.