Napoli reached another landmark in their title-winning campaign, a 3-1 win at home to Internazionale making this the first season in club history when they have beaten all 19 Serie A rivals at least once. Yet this latest feat was overshadowed by reports that the manager, Luciano Spalletti, might not return next season.
On Friday the club’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, left room for doubt when he told Sky Sport: “Spalletti is a superstar and superstars need a place where they can express the best of themselves. He found that here and it all worked. [But] in life freedom is an immeasurable and invaluable good, you should never clip anyone’s wings just as I would not want anyone to clip mine.”
Spalletti gave a bemused response at his pre-game press conference, saying: “I honestly have no idea what this clipping wings phrase is supposed to mean. It’s not pertinent to what we said to each other at [a post-Scudetto] dinner. I don’t need a pair of wings for what I’m trying to achieve, a pair of boots will do fine.”
The manager’s contract at Napoli is set to expire at the end of this season, but the club holds options to extend by up to a further two years. De Laurentiis intended to trigger the first of these, but Spalletti is understood to want a new deal that reflects his achievement. His reported €3m per year salary is less than half what Massimiliano Allegri and José Mourinho make at Juventus and Roma respectively.
De Laurentiis’s comments suggest a better offer might not be forthcoming. Claims that the pair don’t see eye to eye have persisted since last spring, when results were wobbling and a group of Ultras hung a sign outside the stadium telling Spalletti they would return his stolen Fiat Panda if he quit.
Spalletti has a new Panda these days, decorated by Raffo Art to mark the Scudetto with a mural of Vesuvius and the manager’s favourite phrase, “uomini forti destini forti” – “strong men strong destiny”. Whether he will be riding it around town this summer or bombing up the A1 back towards his hometown Certaldo for a sabbatical remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the Italian media have already begun to speculate about a possible replacement. Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi was top of several newspapers’ lists over the weekend, but another popular name was Vincenzo Italiano. The Fiorentina manager just steered his team to the Europa Conference League final and will contest the Coppa Italia final against Inter on Wednesday.
They have won nothing yet, but to come this far is a thrill for a club that last won a trophy in 2001. Fiorentina only narrowly avoided being dragged into a relegation fight in their last season before Italiano took charge in the summer of 2021. He immediately added 22 points and they qualified for Europe despite having his top scorer, Dusan Vlahovic, sold to Juventus in the middle of the campaign.
It was the latest step in a dizzying ascent for Italiano, who was coaching amateur players in Serie D as recently as 2018. After guiding Arzignano Valchiampo to third place in their regional division, he moved to Trapani in Serie C where promotion was secured at the first attempt. The next season he was at Spezia in Serie B, repeating the trick as he took them immediately up to the top flight, before keeping them there in 2020-21.
If you were to focus only on domestic league performance, you could call this the first season of Italiano’s coaching career in which results have gone backwards. Fiorentina will not match last season’s seventh-place finish, but who could expect them to? The Europa Conference League final against West Ham next month will be their 60th match in this campaign. Not even Inter or Roma, finalists in the other two continental competitions, can equal that number.
How have they come this far? Not by conserving their energies, that’s for sure. Italiano’s tactics require constant intensity, pressing opponents high all over the pitch and every time possession is lost. In that way he is similar to De Zerbi, preferring his players to take risks even if that means leaving spaces behind.
It helps that he believes in making full use of his squad, telling the newspaper La Repubblica last February that “you need every player to feel connected to the values and the investments of the club. I let all my players know, even the reserves, that I will not abandon them, that they are always in my head, I need all of them.”
He has used 32 players this season and 22 have logged more than 1,000 minutes. No individual could pick up the slack left by Vlahovic’s departure, but Fiorentina have spread the load between 17 different scorers.
They are far and away the most prolific side in the Europa Conference League, with 36 goals to West Ham’s 27. Things have not come so easy in Serie A, but they still carve out more shooting opportunities per game than anyone besides Napoli and Inter. If the two centre-forwards signed to replace Vlahovic, Luka Jovic and Arthur Cabral, were more consistent in their finishing, their league standing could be a lot higher.
Italiano, though, has openly prioritised the European adventure, saying last week that if you had offered him a cup final in Rome or Prague at the start of this season, he would have chosen the latter. To reach both is something that few fans would even have dared to wish for.
If it means less focus on Serie A for one season, so be it. Fiorentina, exhausted from an extra-time win over Basel in their Europa Conference League semi-final on Thursday, could only draw 1-1 at Torino on Sunday. Jovic found a goal that had eluded him in Switzerland, but Antonio Sanabria responded with a smoothly-taken equaliser, steering Alessandro Buongiorno’s centre across his body and into the bottom corner.
The draw leaves Fiorentina joint-ninth in the table, and qualification for Europe next season now rests on winning one or other cup final. There is belief that either is possible. Fiorentina made a slow start to this season but have played better in 2023 despite their fatigue, the return of Nico González from injury helping to fire a nine-game winning run from February into April.
Fiorentina will not be distracted by questions of what might come next. Italiano has been linked with other teams besides Napoli, but insisted after the Torino game that his mind was only in one place. “I do this job with love and passion, and the results are coming, which is the most important thing,” he said. “We have two finals to play now. We’ll think about the future after that.”