Spalletti ignites old passions and rivalries as Napoli visit Roma

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Milan (AFP) – Luciano Spalletti returns to his old seat on Sunday night when his raging Napoli side meet Roma, where he is the central figure in one of Italian football’s most enduring love-hate relationships.

Two points ahead of Atalanta at the top of Serie A, in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, two games to go and unbeaten in all competitions, Napoli head to Rome with dreams of ending a title drought that stretched to in dating back to the days of Diego Maradona.

Spalletti has his team unbeaten in 10 matches in domestic and European competitions and plays the kind of free-roaming football reminiscent of his exciting and revolutionary Roma team from the early years of this century.

Francesco Totti was in his splendour, and the capital club danced on the ashes of the ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal to lift two Italian Cups and almost won the Scudetto against the all-conquering Inter Milan.

Spalletti was Roma manager for the first time between 2005 and 2009 after guiding Udinese to the Champions League and the ‘Giallorossi’ narrowly escaped relegation the previous season in which they passed through four managers.

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He created a new role for Totti which led to him winning the 2007 European Golden Boot and later being dubbed the ‘false nine’ after Pep Guardiola took it on for Lionel Messi.

“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve had in my career, if not the best,” former France defender Philippe Mexes told Gazzetta Dello Sport of his time under Spalletti at Roma.

“He gives you courage and determination, he has character. And he always manages to get the best out of his players.”

However, it was his strained relationship with Totti that would eventually turn Roma fans against him.

Totti riot

Spalletti returned in January 2016 to replace the sacked Rudi Garcia and once again worked like a magician, turning Roma’s form around and propelling them into the Champions League.

But when Totti publicly complained about not seeing the games from the start, Spalletti dropped him from the squad, sparking fury among fans who refused to let go of their aging icon.

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The following season, a team of 39 goals Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah amassed a club-record 87 points.

But with Totti’s retirement threatened and their spit never resolved, fans finally turned on Spalletti and booed him ahead of their hero’s final game that once again secured Champions League football.

Spalletti has been barracked every time he returns to the Olimpico with Inter and Napoli who will be favorites against a Roma side just four points behind Italy’s pacesetter but without talisman Paulo Dybala.

Napoli hope to have Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa back for Sunday as the Cameroonian midfielder is recovering faster than expected from a hamstring problem he picked up in last week’s win against Ajax.

Just before the showdown in Rome, Lazio meets unbeaten Atalanta in Bergamo without star striker Ciro Immobile leading the line.

Lazio confirmed on Wednesday that Italy striker Immobile has suffered a hamstring injury with a return highly unlikely before 2023.

Silvio Berlusconi will also make a big return this weekend when his club Monza take on champions AC Milan at the San Siro, where he enjoyed famous victories during his 31-year tenure at the helm of one of the world’s most iconic clubs.

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Monza is unbeaten in four and ten games in their first Serie A season and sits 14th ahead of their opening league game against Milan, who are three points behind Napoli.

Players in mind: Victor Osimhen

Napoli rarely missed a shot while Osimhen was sidelined for a month with a hamstring problem, but the Nigerian striker was quick to make an impression on his return with crucial goals in recent victories over Ajax and Bologna.

Victor Osimhen has scored twice in two substitute appearances for Napoli since returning from injury
Victor Osimhen has scored twice in two substitute appearances for Napoli since returning from injury Tiziana FABI AFP/file

Osimhen scored both times as a substitute. So expect him to cause problems for Roma should Spalletti either put the 23-year-old in the starting XI in place of Giacomo Raspadori or substitute him later in the game.

Games (times GMT)

Friday

Juventus vs. Empoli (1845)

Saturday

Salernitana – Spezia (1300), AC Milan – Monza (1600) Florence – Inter (1845)

Sunday

Udinese – Turin (1030), Bologna – Lecce (1300), Atalanta – Lazio (1600), Roma – Napoli (1845)

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