Naples is ready to finally celebrate this weekend as Napoli take on regional rivals Salernitana potentially one win away from their first Serie A title since the days of Diego Maradona.
Thousands of expectant fans will descend on the stadium named after their Argentine icon hoping to be able call their team champions of Italy, ending a 33-year wait for Napoli to be crowned the country’s top team.
With a 17-point lead with seven games remaining Luciano Spalletti’s team have to beat Salernitana and hope Lazio don’t win at Inter Milan in order to cap a magnificent league season which has stunned fans and defied pre-season expectations.
Napoli were a club in turmoil in the summer whose fans were in open revolt against owner Aurelio De Laurentiis after falling away in last term’s title race and selling off beloved players like Kalidou Koulibaly.
Skeptical about new arrivals and their team’s chances, only a few thousand fans bought season tickets before the start of the campaign and Spalletti was ordered to “wake up” by one angry supporter at Napoli’s pre-season training retreat.
Nine months later and summer signings Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Kim Min-jae are lynchpins of a thrilling team who were champions-elect by mid-February and bewitched Europe with a run to the Champions League quarter-finals.
It was Giacomo Raspadori, signed after the season started, who gave Napoli their first match point with his last-gasp winner at Juventus on Sunday night.
That 1-0 win in Turin sparked wild celebrations among supporters, thousands of whom waited for the team at Naples airport.
Afterwards a phalanx of moped-riding fans, some packed three to a scooter and almost none wearing helmets, followed the team bus back into the city to a tune of blaring police sirens and honking horns.
Those supporters will know whether Napoli have a shot at winning the league this year by the time they take to the Stadio Maradona field as the match with Salernitana was pushed back to Sunday, after Lazio’s clash at Inter, for public order reasons.
That match at the San Siro is itself a huge fixture in the race for the Champions League, as defeat on Sunday has left Juve vulnerable to a clutch of teams behind them.
Inter are sixth, five points behind third-placed Juve who were knocked out of the Italian Cup by the Milan giants on Wednesday and travel to Bologna on a dismal run of three straight league losses.
Meanwhile Roma host AC Milan hoping to bounce back from their defeat at Atalanta on Monday which knocked them out of the top four on goal difference.
Jose Mourinho’s team and fourth-placed Milan lead Inter by just two points ahead of the clash at the Stadio Olimpico which could have a big say in who, apart from Napoli, finally snatches a spot in the Champions League.
Player to watch – Rafael Leao
Portugal winger Leao is back in the form which lit up Serie A before the World Cup and it couldn’t come at a better time for Milan as they try to make the top four and prepare for a Champions League semi-final derby with Inter.
His match-winning double against Lecce took the 23-year-old’s league tally to 12 and he will be the danger man against a Roma side hammered by injuries and with their star Paulo Dybala on the bench.
33 – Napoli last won the title 33 years ago in 1990.
9 – The points which separate Lazio and seventh-placed Atalanta.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Lecce v Udinese (1630), Spezia v Monza (1845)
Roma v AC Milan (1600), Torino v Atalanta (1845)
Inter Milan v Lazio (1030), Cremonese v Verona, Sassuolo v Empoli (all 1300), Napoli v Salernitana (TBC), Fiorentina v Sampdoria (1600), Bologna v Juventus (1845)