Dino Zoff is a legendary name in Italian football. Capped over 100 times by the national team and captain of the 1982 World Cup winners, winner of the UEFA Cup as both a player and manager at Juve, and manager of the national team when they came second the 2000 European Championship, his words carry a lot of weight when it comes to what makes the sport tick in Italy. That said, his latest interview regarding Napoli, where he was the man in goal for four seasons, might not sit so well with some of the partenopei faithful.
Zoff was asked by Radio Crc this week about what hasn't gone right for Napoli this season. His answer, rather obviously if you've read here for very long, is that Napoli haven't had the same verve and fire against the smaller teams in the league as they have against the big clubs. When asked about what could be done to fix it, his answer, boiled down to it's core, was "be more like Atletico Madrid."
On the surface, it's a solid answer. As Zoff pointed out, Atleti come out in every match with fire and determination whether they're playing Real Madrid or Almeria. That approach has lead them to the top of the table in La Liga, one point ahead of Barcelona and three ahead of their more famous neighbors in Madrid. They've also made it all the way to the Champions League semifinals, drawn against Chelsea after downing Barca in a dramatic quarterfinal round. They don't have the same talent or resources as these massive clubs around them, but thanks to the right players, coaching, and attitude they've been able to hang with them all season long.
Where the trouble comes in is that telling an Italian team to be more like a Spanish team... well, that just doesn't go over well most times. Especially in a situation like Napoli's, where large portions of the fanbase complain about the club being "too Spanish" this season, after bringing in a Spanish manager, goalkeeper, centerback, and winger in the summer. Italian fans tend to be fiercely loyal to Italian players and coaches, and to Italian ideals for their clubs' tactics and strategies, and to tell them to more closely embrace the ideals of a footballing culture they see as inferior... well, that generally doesn't end well.
The thing is, though, is that Atletico Madrid have spent this season acting more like an Italian team than a Spanish one. The way they've put their nose to the grindstone and fought out results in tough matches? That's good old fashioned Italian grinta, though and through. You don't see them get flustered when someone punches them in the mouth like Barcelona or Real do; instead, Atleti punch back, again and again. It;'s much the same way the Juventus has been able to sprint to two consecutive titles, and now stand on the brink of a third.
It may not be pretty advice, but what Zoff is espousing is effective: Be better against small teams. Don't rest on your laurels, fight every minute of every match. Do what needs to be done to win the match, period, even if it's ugly on the surface. It seems simple, but all you have to do is look around the world football landscape and you can find dozens of pre-season favorites that didn't do these things who are being surpassed by predicted also-rans who did do them. In England, Tottenham didn't and Liverpool did. In Germany, Schalke has and Leverkusen hasn't. In France, it's Lyon and Lille. Holland, AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord.
Napoli have had that kind of spine in the past, but it hasn't been there this season. It's been a pattern with teams managed by Rafa Benitez in the past, but even the last two years of Walter Mazzarri's reign was marred by that issue as well, too frequently relying on the iron will of Edinson Cavani to pull them out of trouble in matches they should have won handily.
Perhaps a summer transfer strategy based on character as well as talent needs to be strongly considered, but changes in ideals need to happen as well, or it's more likely than is comfortable that next season will be a repeat of what we're going through now. This squad is too talented to accept that eventuality, so steps must be taken to prevent it, even if that does mean emulating a foreign club. The fans might hate it at first, but trophies have a way of healing wounds.