MILAN (Reuters) - Napoli fans will be given a reminder of what they are missing on Sunday when their former coach Maurizio Sarri returns to the San Paolo stadium for the first time since his sacking in 2018, which he said broke his heart.
Sarri will lead his Juventus team in what, over the past few seasons, has invariably been a top-of-the-table clash, fuelled by north-south rivalry.
But while Juventus, chasing a ninth successive title, are leading Serie A as usual, Napoli are having one of their worst seasons since returning to the top flight in 2007 following bankruptcy three years earlier.
Runners-up three times in the past four seasons, they have slumped to eleventh in the table and have lost four of their five Serie A matches since Gennaro Gattuso replaced Carlo Ancelotti — who himself had taken Sarri’s place — in December.
Juventus have opened up a four-point lead over Inter Milan, who host Cagliari in Sunday’s midday match at San Siro on a weekend which also features the Derby della Capitale between AS Roma and third-placed Lazio — themselves aiming for a remarkable 12th successive league win.
The Turin side are finally beginning to play their own version of “Sarriball” — the high-tempo passing game which the 61-year-old coach implanted during his three seasons at Napoli when he turned them into Serie A’s most eye-catching team.
Under Sarri, Napoli finished as Serie A’s topscorers with 94 goals in the 2016-17 season and, in the following season, managed a club record 91 points, though they still could not catch relentless Juventus.
Then, as Sarri fretted over whether his team might be broken up and refused to commit himself to staying longer, Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis lost patience, sacked him and appointed Ancelotti in his place.
Sarri, who eventually took charge at Chelsea for one season, found out about his Napoli sacking while watching the news on television and said it had left him heart-broken.
Meanwhile, Ancelotti tweaked the side, introduced more rotation and led them to another second place last season but the spark had already gone. This season has seen them implode.
“From a certain point of view, it’s about the three points as always,” said Sarri after Juventus steamrollered AS Roma 3-1 in the Coppa Italia quarter-final on Wednesday. “From an emotional point of view, it’s obviously a special match for me because I have a strong rapport with the city of Napoli.”
“It was not a normal experience,” he added of his time at the club. “It was something that really touched me deep down. It was, on a human level, an extraordinary bond.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Mark Trevelyan