Spalletti warns Napoli to avoid conceit as end to title agony nears

If Napoli's players are looking over their shoulders as they kick off the weekend's Serie A matches with a visit to struggling Empoli, it should be not at the distant chasing pack, but at manager Luciano Spalletti.

Napoli heads into Saturday having won seven straight league games. Its opponent Empoli is winless in its last four contests. Victory would put Napoli 18 points clear of the chasing pack before all the other team's kick-off.

After Napoli continued its dream season with a 2-0 victory at Frankfurt on Tuesday in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, Spalletti responded to questions about whether his team was already through to the next round by laying out a philosophy that applies equally to the league campaign. 

"If I see my plyers thinking like that when we get home this evening, they won't play," he said. "Conceit is the worst fault in players. We have to stay calm, very calm." But the grim-faced manager added: "I'm happy, even if I don't smile."

After years of agonizing collapses and near misses, Napoli seems to be cruising to its first Italian title since Argentian legend Diego Maradona led the club to its only two titles in 1988 and 1990. If it completes the job against Frankfurt, Napoli will reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time.  

The team has dropped just seven points in 23 matches in Serie A. It has the best attack and defense. No wonder the players and the fans who support them at the Diego Armando Stadium are excited.

"At the beginning of the season, almost no one thought we could get to certain levels, the team is playing a beautiful game," backup striker Alessio Zerbin told Italian radio on Thursday. "Seeing the Maradona always full, knowing that there are fans who travel around Italy and Europe to be near us, gives us a huge boost." 

On Tuesday, the final game of this match week is a Turin derby which gives Torino a rare chance to move above Juventus, which has dropped to seventh place after a 15-point deduction, just two points ahead of its neighbor.

Player to watch: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia

Napoli's dazzling attacking play has made it the team to watch and at the heart of it is the mesmerizing creative play of the 21-year-old Georgian who has soared in his first season in Italy. He is the league's fourth-best scorer with 10 goals and also leads the league in assists with nine. Against Frankfurt, he missed a penalty, but then atoned with a highlight-reel assist, a sharp no-look backheel to present Giovanni di Lorenzo with a clear shot that the right-back slotted into the back of the net. 

Saturday: Empoli vs Napoli, Lecce vs Sassuolo
Sunday: Bologna vs Inter Milan, Salernitana vs Monza, Udinese vs Spezia, AC Milan vs Atalanta
Monday: Hellas Verona vs Fiorentina, Lazio vs Sampdoria
Tuesday: Cremonese vs Roma, Juventus vs Torino


© Agence France-Presse

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