NAPLES, Italy — Still attempting to climb out of Diego Maradona’s shadow after 25 years in relative obscurity, Napoli appears to be on the verge of something special.
The southern club was thoroughly dominant in a 4-2 win over Benfica on Wednesday, tightening its grip on Group B of the Champions League.
“It was an extraordinary match against an opponent that is more accustomed to playing in this competition,” former Napoli forward Roberto Sosa told The Associated Press on Thursday. “It’s not easy to score four goals.”
The Partenopei have also started strongly in Serie A, trailing five-time defending champion Juventus by one point through six matches.
All this despite Gonzalo Higuain’s Italian-record transfer to Juventus for 90 million euros ($99 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.
“We’re playing as a team now and everyone is adding something extra,” said Belgium winger Dries Mertens, who scored twice against Benfica.
While Napoli finished runner-up to Juventus in Serie A last season and in 2013, the team hasn’t won the league since Maradona led the club to its only two titles in 1987 and 1990.
“Last season at a certain point the squad realized they couldn’t do anything more but it was the only team on Juve’s level and I think it’s the same situation this season,” Sosa said.
In 2004, Napoli fell into financial disarray and was forced to restart in the third division under new ownership after film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis purchased the club.
“Napoli has been playing in Europe for the last (seven) seasons. There have been failures and presidential changes but now this club is improving constantly and keeping its finances in order,” said Sosa, the popular Argentine known as “El Pampa” who played with Napoli in the third division and led the club back to the top flight.
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri’s personal history somewhat mirrors the team’s travails over the past quarter century.
Sarri toiled in relative obscurity in the lower divisions and provinces of Italian soccer before taking over his hometown club last season.
Sarri acknowledged he felt goosebumps when he heard the roar of the San Paolo Stadium from the tunnel leading out onto the field Wednesday.
“It’s something that touches you and remains in your skin — like a tattoo,” Sarri said.
Born in Naples to Tuscan parents — his father worked in the now-abandoned Italsider steel factory in the city’s Bagnoli area — Sarri has become a fan favorite.
Along with one huge banner featuring Maradona’s image, Napoli’s hard-core “ultra” supporters in the Curva B now also wave a banner with an image of Sarri’s bespectacled face.
“There wasn’t much confidence in him at the start of last season but he’s shown himself to be a top player,” said Sosa, now a commentator and coach. “It shows that in football you can never give up. When you decide on a goal and a dream, eventually you can realize it. (Sarri) kept chasing his dream and he has ended up in the Champions League. It’s really deserved.”
While fans have decried De Laurentiis for raising ticket prices, they have supported Sarri’s stances against perceived referees’ mistakes, contrasting with De Laurentiis’ preferred silence.
At odds with the city over the decrepit San Paolo Stadium, De Laurentiis said recently that he won’t set foot again in the arena and wants to build a new 40,000-seat facility instead.
Still, the San Paolo seems to have quite a positive effect on Napoli. The squad hasn’t lost at home in Serie A since a defeat to Lazio in May 2015 — a run of 19 wins and three draws — and is also unbeaten at home in the Champions League, including the old European Cup format during the Maradona years.
Despite Higuain’s departure, there have been plenty of players to admire.
Arkadiusz Milik, the 22-year-old Poland center forward brought in to replace Higuain, has scored seven goals in eight matches — three of them in the Champions League to tie for the tournament lead with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and former Napoli great Edinson Cavani, who is now with Paris Saint-Germain.
Jose Callejon has added five goals in six Serie A games, and fellow wingers Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, another Napoli native, have also been incisive.
Not to mention newly acquired midfielders Amadou Diawara, Marko Rog, Emanuele Giachherini and Piotr Zielinski — some of whom have yet to make their Napoli debuts.
“The squad has strengthened itself in midfield. These are important players for an area where you need to run,” Sosa said when asked to indicate the biggest improvement from last season. “They’re on the right road.”
Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf