Luciano Spalletti returns to his old patch on Sunday night when his rampaging Napoli team take on 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 Champions League knockouts with two games to spare and unbeaten in all competitions, Napoli travel to Rome dreaming of ending a title drought which stretches back to the days of Diego Maradona.
Spalletti has his unbeaten team on a 10-match winning streak over domestic and European competitions and playing the kind of free-wheeling football which recalls his thrilling and revolutionary Roma team from the early years of this century.
Francesco Totti was in his pomp and the capital club waltzed over the ashes of the ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal to claim two Italian Cups and almost win the Scudetto against all-conquering Inter Milan.
Spalletti first managed Roma between 2005 and 2009, arriving after leading Udinese to the Champions League and with the ‘Giallorossi’ having only just escaped relegation in the previous campaign in which they went through four managers.
He created a new role for Totti which led to him winning the European Golden Boot in 2007 and was later christened the ‘false nine’ after Pep Guardiola adopted it for Lionel Messi.
“He’s one of the best managers I had in my career, if not the best,” former France defender Philippe Mexes told the Gazzetta Dello Sport of his time under Spalletti at Roma.
“He instills grit and determination in you, he’s got character. And he always manages to get the very best out of his players.”
However it was his tense relationship with Totti which would eventually turn Roma fans against him.
Spalletti returned in January 2016 to replace sacked Rudi Garcia and again worked his magic, turning Roma’s form around and getting them into the Champions League.
But when Totti publicly complained about not starting matches Spalletti dropped him from the squad, sparking fury from fans unwilling to let go of their ageing icon.
The following season a team featuring 39-goal Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah collected a club-record 87 points.
But with Totti’s retirement looming and their spat never resolved supporters definitively turned on Spalletti, booing him before their hero’s final ever match which again secured Champions League football.
Spalletti has been barracked each time he has come back to the Olimpico with Inter and Napoli, who will be favourites against a Roma team who only trail Italy’s pacesetters by four points but are missing talisman Paulo Dybala.
Napoli are hoping to have Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa back for Sunday as the Cameroon midfielder recovers quicker than expected from a thigh problem picked up during last week’s win over Ajax.
Immediately before the showdown in Rome, Lazio take on unbeaten Atalanta in Bergamo without star striker Ciro Immobile to lead the line.
Lazio confirmed on Wednesday that Italy forward Immobile had suffered a thigh injury, with a return before 2023 highly unlikely.
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 celebrated famous wins in a trophy-packed, 31-year reign at the head of one of the world’s most famous clubs.
Monza are unbeaten in four and 10 games into their first ever Serie A season sit 14th before their first ever league match with Milan, who trail Napoli by three points.
Player to watch: Victor Osimhen
Napoli barely skipped a beat while Osimhen was out for a month with a thigh problem, but the Nigeria forward quickly made an impact on his return with crucial goals in recent wins over Ajax and Bologna.
Osimhen struck both times as a substitute so expect him to cause problems for Roma should Spalletti either start the 23-year-old in place of Giacomo Raspadori or bring him on during the course of the match.
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