Conor Dowley is the editor for SB Nation's Napoli blog the Siren's Song. Despite this flaw, he's a pretty cool dude and actually helps us out a lot with the technical side of the blog. He also writes for SB Nation's soccer page and shows up all over the network's soccer coverage, so he's pretty knowledgeable about the Italian game in general. We got him to sit down in the walnut-paneled library at Viola Nation headquarters to drink a couple glasses of port, have a pleasant Meerschaum, and talk about the upcoming match between Napoli and Fiorentina.
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Viola Nation: What are Napoli's goals for this season? Do they think they have a shot at the Scudetto? Champions League?
The Siren's Song: After Napoli's recent hot streak and the weird way Serie A has started, there is starting to be some hope that a Scudetto run is possible. First and foremost, though, the team are laser focused on earning a place in the Champions League. That's something they need to achieve on a regular basis if they're going to be able to meet their goals to grow as a team on a competitive level thanks to the financial bounty that the Champions League brings.
In fact, securing regular CL qualification might even be more important for Napoli in the short term than winning a Scudetto -- the team is stable financially, but can't compete with even the traditional powers in Italy, much less the bigger teams around Europe when it comes to money. They need that Champions League revenue in order to build themselves up as a long-term threat, both in Italy and in Europe.
VN: What has life been like under Sarri? How is he an improvement on Rafa Benitez, and where does he fall short? What's new about Napoli this year, tactically speaking, and what's stayed the same?
TSS: It's been... odd. Sarri brought massive change, not just in how Napoli play the game, but also in terms of what we see from the team's leader. Where Rafa was loud and boastful and arrogant and demanded the world of everyone around him -- while never taking the blame for any failures under his watch -- Sarri is instead quiet, reserved, and also highly demanding of his players -- but also acknowledges when things need to be worked on and that he has a role to play in that. Where Rafa was always talkative about transfer rumors and needs and such, Sarri just shrugs and says "that's why we have a sporting director, I just want to coach." It's a big change from what we're used to, and frankly, it's been refreshing to see.
It's too early to say if he's clearly better or worse than Rafa, but he's certainly been much more proactive about working with the team to find ideal solutions to problems, and it shows with how the team plays on the pitch as well. There's still plenty of issues to iron out, to be sure, but there's more reason to hope for improvement now than we ever really had for the last two years.
Tactically speaking, the team looks to try to hold possession a little more than they used to, and in so doing try to both force and exploit mistakes in the opponent's defense. Sarri also allows his players to play to their strengths instead of shoehorning them into uncomfortable roles, like we saw under Benitez with Lorenzo Insigne being played as a straight winger, or Marek Hamsik playing with his back to goal, or Jorginho being used as a holding midfielder. Instead of forcing his players into a specific vision, Sarri is taking a general set of tactics and letting his players do the things that got them to this level, and so far, it's worked more often than not.
There's still some lingering issues, especially in defense, but the team's been showing steady improvement from their very first match. Right now is a pretty fun time to be a Napoli fan.
Photo credit: Getty Images
VN: How worried are yall about this game? Do yall consider Fiorentina a realistic scudetto threat, or are yall still focused on beating the traditional Serie A powers based in Turin, Rome, and Milan, expecting Fiorentina to slow down a little bit as the season wears on?
TSS: Well, Fiorentina are always a tough opponent. Without looking at the record book, it feels like Napoli have beaten them more often than not, but the matches are never easy and are often memorable. Also, we still haven't forgiven y'all for breaking Lorenzo Insigne last season. So. There's that.
As far as the Scudetto goes, going into the season I would have been more concerned about Juventus and Inter and Roma than Fiorentina. We all know the absolutely insane start to the season that we've seen, though, and instead we're coming into the weekend with the Viola riding high on top of the table instead. So who's to say if they can't keep it up all year? Normally by now I'd be willing to say who the contenders are in a given league, but right now in Serie A, it's anyone's ballgame.
VN: Who's been Napoli's best player so far? Which new additions have looked sharp, and which haven't yet made much of an impact? Who do you think is going to be the biggest threat to Fiorentina in the one?
TSS: Napoli's best player has easily been Lorenzo Insigne, with his energetic presence in the attack really helping drive things since they turned their form around. He was also one of the few shining lights of the earlier struggles this season, so he's not just running with the team's form. Marek Hamsik has also been a consistent positive presence in the side, and among the new signings, Allan has been far and away the standout performer. His drive in midfield is incredible, and while we all knew he was a solid defensive presence in the middle of the pitch, his ability to help the attack has been surprisingly good. Other players whose impact has been somewhat underrated this year, even by Napoli fans, would have to be Jorginho and Elseid Hysaj, who have both stepped into bigger-than-expected roles and not missed a single beat, and actually have outperformed the men they replaced.
As far as just this match goes, I can't look past Gonzalo Higuain. Maybe that's too obvious, but Pipita was in some pretty darn good form coming into the international break, and looking at how he matches up in terms of one-on-one battles with Fiorentina's center backs, it's hard not to see the potential for a big match from him.
VN: Which Fiorentina player(s) are you most anxious about facing? What do you think are the key personnel matchups, and who has the advantage?
TSS: I have to admit, both Nikola Kalinic and Josip Ilicic have me a bit worried coming into this one. Both are the kind of crafty runners who Napoli have struggled with for the last couple of years, so if attention starts to wander in Napoli's defense, bad things could happen in a big hurry.
VN: What do you think the overall pattern of the game will be? Got any score predictions? Scorers? Catastrophic mistakes?
TSS: I fully expect this to be the kind of game that makes my boss send me a message along the lines of "yo this game is on some serious drugs." High energy, back and forth football with at least three goals and plenty of drama, including a likely late winner. A late winner for who? That I don't know. This could honestly go either way. I do hope, though, that Insigne scores a goal and flips off Josip Ilicic, the man who cost him months of his career with a horrible tackle last season.
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That's all for now, folks. I answered some questions for Conor too; they're up on the Siren's song if you want to check out the other side and banter a bit in the comments. As always, keep it civil. We like the folks over there, and we want them to like us.