MILAN (Reuters) - With Napoli almost certain to miss out on the Serie A title again, their fans are wondering whether coach Maurizio Sarri and his players will stay for one more try or whether their cherished team is on the point of breaking up.
Napoli’s hopes of snatching the title rely on winning their final two games, Juventus losing theirs, and making up a difference of 16 goals — an almost impossible task.
Otherwise, they will finish as runners-up for the second time in Sarri’s three seasons at the club. Even so, he is hugely popular.
The chain-smoking Italian has turned his home-town club into Serie A’s most eye-catching team with a brand of high-tempo football that has been praised by Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, among others.
But in the last week there has been considerable speculation that the 59-year-old might leave at the end of the season.
This has created a chicken-and-egg situation because if the top players sense that Sarri is dallying over his future, they could leave the club — and their departure could in turn prompt Sarri to go himself.
Goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who will become a free agent in July, has already announced his departure while Gazzetta dello Sport has suggested that a number of players who are closely connected to Sarri will stay on only if he does.
They include Dries Mertens, who has scored some breathtaking goals following his reinvention by Sarri as a striker, and key midfielder Jorginho, reportedly being watched by Manchester City.
Team captain Marek Hamsik summed up what appears to be widespread sentiment after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Torino.
“I really hope Sarri stays because he has helped improve both the team and everyone around Napoli,” the Slovakian said.
“It’s fundamental that he remains, as he created a spectacular group, and the fans know it — which is why 50,000 come to every game.”
Sarri suggested his future was out of his hands.
“It’s down to the club whether this is the end of an era or not,” he said. “If the club cannot keep hold of six or seven of these players, then clearly an era is over.”
“This is a group of players with a culture of hard work and (they) are ready to keep challenging themselves.”
Club president Aurelio De Laurentiis gave several interviews last week in which he publicly criticised Sarri, especially for down-playing the importance of European competitions and for not rotating his squad.
But on Thursday, De Laurentiis, who gave Sarri his first job at a big club by signing him from modest Empoli, was more conciliatory as he confirmed the pair would meet next week for talks.
“We hope he stays,” De Laurentiis told reporters.
“I was the one who chose Sarri, against everyone else’s advice. I think he has had three very significant years here and I don’t think he can have any regrets.
“I don’t think he has lost motivation — he has given a lot to Napoli and Napoli have given a lot to him.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern,; Editing by Neville Dalton