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SERIE A

Napoli revive memories of Maradona with Serie A title win

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Napoli clinched the Serie A title on Thursday with five games to spare as they ended a 33-year drought stretching back to when Diego Maradona led them to the Scudetto in 1990.

At the start of the season it would have been difficult to envisage Napoli becoming champions ahead of heavyweights such as Juventus and the two Milan clubs not to mention AS Roma.

During a close season of discontent, fans grumbled as key players like captain Lorenzo Insigne, Napoli’s all-time top scorer Dries Mertens, Arkadiusz Milik, Fabian Ruiz and Kalidou Koulibaly all left for pastures new.

But after an exceptional transfer window and with Luciano Spalletti at the helm, Napoli dominated the title race while their main rivals all suffered slumps during the season.

They are currently 16 points clear of second-placed Lazio.

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In Spalletti, the Naples club have an Italian manager who discarded traditional tactics and allowed talented players to flourish after a quick rebuild in the close season.

While Napoli’s last two Serie A triumphs were focused around Maradona’s greatness, this season’s triumph can be attributed to a solid all-round squad guided by a shrewd manager.

Kim Min-Jae arrived from Fenerbahce to replace Koulibaly as the lynchpin at the back while Andre Frank Zambo Anguissa’s loan move from Fulham was made permanent as he completed a three-man midfield alongside Stanislav Lobotka and Piotr Zielinski.

KVARADONA SUPREME

But it was their 22-year-old Georgian winger from Dinamo Batumi who made heads turn in Europe.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia was a relatively unknown quantity when he arrived in Italy but he has scored 12 goals and provided 10 assists in 28 Serie A appearances to guide Napoli to the title while earning the nickname ‘Kvaradona’.

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With his vision and playmaking abilities, he formed a deadly duo with Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen who flourished this season to lead Serie A with 22 goals, becoming one of the hottest prospects in the transfer market.

Napoli thrilled fans with an exhilarating style of football as they topped the scoring charts, with Spalletti saying the key to unlocking their potential was not sticking to standard tactical systems.

“Systems no longer exist in football. It’s all about the opposition’s spaces,” he said. “You must be quick to spot them, know the right moment to strike and have the courage to start the move even when pressed.”

CONTENDERS FALTER

As Napoli surged ahead, suffering just one loss by the end of February, the other title contenders withered away as injuries plagued their squads.

Romelu Lukaku’s hamstring issues saw Inter struggle at the start of the season and they never recovered despite their run to the Champions League semi-finals where they face Milan.

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Juventus, on the other hand, were without midfielder Paul Pogba, with the Frenchman yet to start a game and playing only 42 minutes since his return from knee surgery which kept him out of the World Cup.

Juve’s 15-points deduction, which hung over them for much of 2023 before the punishment was suspended, also made it difficult for their manager Massimiliano Allegri to decide which competition to prioritise.

Milan also tried to keep pace with Napoli but Stefano Pioli’s side went five straight games without a win in January, allowing Napoli to build a substantial lead while putting the defending champions out of contention by the spring.

Lazio capitalised on their rivals travails and they are on course for one of their best seasons in years having beaten all of the top six clubs this term.

But Maurizio Sarri’s side could only watch as Napoli became the fourth different team to win Serie A in as many years.

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-Reuters

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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SERIE A

Ademola Lookman wins Atalanta’s ‘Player of The Season Award

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Nigeria’s Super Eagles winger and silver medal winner with the country at the last AFCON 2023 tournament in Cote D’Ivoire, Ademola Lookman, has emerged as the Atalanta Player of the Season.

The pint-size forward has won the converted award Back-to-back with the Bergamo-based side after his exploit in the domestic and European matches for the side.

Atalanta qualified for two finals with the Nigerian International playing an active role in the campaign.

He was instrumental to Atalanta winning the UEFA Europa League beating Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 in the final with the Nigerian scoring all the goals.

The club announced on its official website on Thursday saying, “It’s him again, Ademola Lookman! The reigning champion defends his title and is crowned straight-a student for the second year in a row after staving off an unsparing competition, to the point of both bringing the contest to an overtime runoff and stepping the pose down up to the Instagram profile after the regular session ended in a tie. Kudos to Mola for his back-to-back Player of the Season!” it noted.
It went further that,” building on his 17 goals and 11 key passes in all competitions (making him the team’s second-best seasonal scorer and wingman) and with the hat-trick scored in the magical Dublin final as his main leg-up, Lookman tips the ItalianOptic branded crown once again,” the web remarked.

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Aside from Ademola, the second and third-best positions were also announced as the midfield duo of Jose dos Santo Éderson and Teun Koopmeiners.

The Nigerian had a brilliant AFCON experience with Nigeria where he scored three goals and his exploits so far have put him in strong contention to win the next ‘African Footballer of the Year’ award which will come up before the end of the year at a venue yet to be announced by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen is the reigning winner of the award alongside Asissat Oshoola who retained the version.

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SERIE A

Napoli reduces Victor Osimhen’s value

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Former Serie A champions Napoli are reportedly ready to drop their asking price for Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen as his future grows ever more uncertain.

The 25-year-old is looking for a move away from Serie A but Napoli’s initial €150M release clause has warned off any potential suitors.

Quoting from another Italian outlet, Calciomercato, Getfootballnewsitaly reports that Napoli are ready to lower the initial valuation to €100M, in the hope that they can free up much needed transfer funds for new boss Antonio Conte, who is understood to be desperate to land Belgian international striker Romelu Lukaku this summer.

It is also stated that the English Premier League sides, Chelsea who were understood to be in pole-position to sign the Nigerian international, has never opened any negotiation with the 2023 Serie A champions.

The only avenues open at this time seem to be the Saudi Pro-League, where a reported salary of €40M a season has been offered, or Paris Saint-Germain, with Osimhen not keen on either option, preferring a move to the English Premier League.

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SERIE A

Osimhen’s Napoli European hopes end with 0-0 draw against Lecce

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If Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen remains in Napoli in the next season, he will not have any action in UEFA competitions.

Napoli lost their slim chances to participate in European competitions next season when they were held to a 0-0 home draw by Lecce in their last Serie A game of the campaign on Sunday.

Last season’s champions Napoli finished 10th on 53 points, level with ninth-placed Torino who were beaten 3-0 at Atalanta in a simultaneous kick off on Sunday.

Despite their loss, Torino can now still earn a Europa Conference League playoffs spot if eighth-placed Fiorentina, who have a game in hand, win the Europa Conference League.

Fiorentina face Greece’s Olympiacos for the title on Wednesday.

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Napoli needed a win to maintain their European hopes but despite 24 shots, five of them on target, they ended their disappointing campaign winless in their last seven games.

Substitute Cyril Ngonge had a good chance to give Napoli the lead just after the break but his shot from the edge of the box was saved by Lecce goalkeeper Wladimiro Falcone.

Jens Cajuste hit the far post with a low strike shortly before Ngonge hit the bar in the 64th minute.

Europa League winners Atalanta, meanwhile, secured at least fourth spot after Gianluca Scamacca, Ademola Lookman and Mario Pasalic were all on target in a 3-0 win against Torino.

They sit fourth on 69 points but can still leapfrog third-placed Juventus, on 71 points, if they beat Fiorentina in their last remaining game next Sunday.

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-Reuters

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