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Player Focus: Hamsik the Key to Napoli's Scudetto Challenge

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Player Focus: Hamsik the Key to Napoli's Scudetto Challenge

 

A place in Napoli's history books awaits Marek Hamsik. At 25, he is already in the club's top 10 goalscorers of all-time, a remarkable feat for a midfield player. "Up until now, I've got 68," he said, "and the objective is to get to 77, where there's [Giuseppe] Savoldi. To overtake Maradona [on 115], I'd need another five or six years. The problem is that it will be impossible to pass Edi Cavani."

His teammate is closing in on the record and fast in the midst of another prolific season at San Paolo. You'd think it would maybe take at least part of the next one for Cavani to beat it. And yet even after signing a new five-year contract last summer, the €63m buy-out clause included within its terms means that, given the number of clubs apparently "unafraid in front of this figure" and willing to pay it, there's no guarantee he'll still be there.

As you can well imagine, nearly all the talk about Napoli at the moment regards Cavani's future. The player himself claims not to be thinking about it. Before he leaves, he insists, he wants to leave a mark and win something special [read: the Scudetto], though the prospect of one day playing for Real Madrid and Barcelona attracts him.

Hamsik is tied down long-term to Napoli too. He put pen to paper on a new contract until 2016 towards the end of last season and significantly, we're told, no buy-out clause can be found on its pages.

Signed from Brescia for €5.5m at the turn of his 20th birthday, Hamsik joined Napoli just as they'd made it back to Serie A after six harrowing years in the lower tiers of Italian football. He came to be identified with the club's bright new future and, even among a group of South Americans, some crusty and old like Marcelo Zalayeta, others fresh and scugnizzo like Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hamsik was the player that promised most.

While the Argentines and Uruguayans partied, often on boats in the bay in scenes reminiscent of Jay-Z's video for Big Pimpin, the Slovakian showed a blue collar work-ethic. For his first three seasons at San Paolo, Hamsik was Napoli's top scorer in Serie A.

He was, in many respects, a hipster footballer. There were the preppy glasses and of course the haircut, la cresta, a trend he started long before Stephan El Shaarawy, Mario Balotelli and M'Baye Niang did at Milan.

He could perhaps have been with them at San Siro too. Remember two summers ago, Milan made a €25m bid for Hamsik. But fearful that it would hamper the efforts of his political party to get a candidate elected as mayor of Naples, their president Silvio Berlusconi promised not to buy him.

Hamsik laughed as he leaped when Napoli supporters sang: "Who doesn't jump is a Rossonero" at pre-season training in Dimaro that year. They admired his loyalty, turning a blind eye to his flirtation with Milan. "It would be a turning point for my career, I know that Galliani and Allegri have praised me," he had told a paper back home in Slovakia.

But Hamsik, for the time he'd put in, his preparedness to buy-into the Napoli project and what it meant to be Napolitano, to say nothing of his status, despite his young age, as one of the veterans of the De Laurentiis era at the club, was deserving of their affection. Local police, Hamsik claimed, looked the other way if he was speeding. A watch of his stolen at gunpoint was returned once the thieves who nicked it realised that it belonged to 'Marekiaro'. Naples felt lucky to have him.

Yet there's a case to be made that by then Hamsik's star had waned a little or levelled off while the others around him at Napoli were on the rise. He'd had a disappointing 2010 World Cup, Cavani had arrived and exceeded expectations, becoming, if you consider Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on another level, one of the best forwards in the world with Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie.

In addition, after all the partying and the fall-outs with De Laurentiis, Lavezzi had got his head straight, knuckled down and was finally playing to the potential that would earn him a €30m plus move to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

Of the 'Three Tenors', Hamsik was maybe the one who wasn't quite pitch perfect. If he had lost his voice a bit, however, he has well and truly found it again this season. Without doubt, it's been his best to date in a Napoli shirt. As WhoScored revealed in a piece on "Europe's Most Consistent Performers" earlier this week, only Lionel Messi has received a higher percentage of ratings over 7 out of 10 this season.

There's something different about Hamsik this season. Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri says "above all, it's mental." He has matured as a player and become a leader.

His role has changed too. Hamsik has often played either inside-left in central midfield or on his own behind two strikers this season. He follows, though you could argue that he started, the trend in Serie A of unorthodox No.10s like Kevin-Prince Boateng at Milan and Fredy Guarin at Inter: hard-running players, energetic and vertical, particularly adept at coming from deep to provide an element of surprise to an attack.

"It's in my characteristics to get into the opposition's penalty area," Hamsik explains. "I always follow the [development] of a move and often find myself in the right place at the right time... I'm happy in this position because [now that Lavezzi's gone] I can move across the entire forward line. I have more freedom of movement and enjoy myself more because I can score and be useful to my teammates."

Just ask Cavani.

 

Player Focus: Hamsik the Key to Napoli's Scudetto Challenge

 

Their relationship on the pitch this season has been likened to that between Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen at the Chicago Bulls in the `90s. Cavani has scored 18 in Serie A and set up another two. Hamsik has scored nine and, further to that, has set up 11. They have been involved in 20 goals each. It's the best joint-effort on any team in the league this season and is driving their title challenge.

Take the weekend's events for example. Napoli prevailed in a potential trap-game, overcoming Catania by two goals to nil. Once again, Hamsik was decisive. He followed up a deflected Juan Camilo Zuniga shot to open the scoring and then later played the ball across the box for Paolo Cannavaro to scramble in the clinching goal.

Of the 49 points Napoli have accumulated so far, Hamsik has been responsible for 14 of them. That's 28% of the total. His goals settled games against Chievo and Cagliari, they contributed to 2-1 wins against Fiorentina, Udinese and Parma. Without his assists, maybe his teammates wouldn't have found a way to beat Palermo, Genoa and Pescara too. "Hamsik is a true champion," Mazzarri insists, "I'd play him even if he were only 70% fit because he is one of those players capable of inventing a winning passage of play for you in any moment."

Saturday's victory briefly sent Napoli to the top of the table. They haven't occupied that position at this stage of a campaign since 1990, the last time they won Serie A.

"The Scudetto? I'm superstitious and won't say that word," Hamsik said.

With five wins from their last six games and their appeal against a two-point penalty a success, Napoli have managed to close the gap with Juventus from 10 to just three points. The S-word is on Hamsik's lips more than ever. Come what may, it seems that in the form that he's in, he'll definitely have his say from now until the end of the season on whose shirt the little tricolor shield will be stitched.

Comments (2)

 
  • He is on the way to become Napoli legend. I hope he will be getting even better in next seasons

  • Great article! Under the radar all season!

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Alexis Sanchez Pedro Loïc Remy Sami Allagui Frédéric Kanouté Renato Augusto Jonathan Pitropia Eljero Elia Ivo Llicevic Fernando Muslera Diego Perez Alvaro González Abel Hernandez David VIlla Marcel Schmelzer Danijel Pranjic Holger Badstuber Sven Bender Johan Djourou Darren Fletcher Carlos Kameni Thiago Silve Antonia Di Natale Cristiano Zapata Domenico Criscito Luis Jimenez Josep Ilicic Samuel Eto’o Alexis Thébaux Ludovic Sané Mamouda Sakho Boukary Dramé Daniel Alves Nikolay Mihaylov Charles Puyol Ji-Sung Park Edwin van der Sar Dani Alves John O’Shea Park Ji-Jung Gabi Fernandez Jonathan de Guzman Michael Owen Gary Taylor-Fletcher Ian Evatt DJ Campbell Charles N’Zogbia Wolverhampton Robinho Rudi Garcia Avram Grant Conor Sammon Wayne Bridge Rob Green Victor Obinna Mike Hanke Borussia Munchengladbach VfL Bochum Tomasz Kuszczak Martin Olsson Brett Emerton Jermaine Jones Steven N’Zonzi Muset Ozil Gianpaolo Pazzini Leonardo Seydou Keita Miguel Pallardo Ibrahim Afellay Valdo Pallardo Damien Perquis Luka Modrid David SIlva Roberto Mancini Harry Redknapp Benoit Assou-Ekotto Vedran Corluka Carlo Ancelotti Saloman Kalou Clarence Seedorf Matteo Brighi Fabio Simplicio Rodrigo Taddei Mark Van Bommel Gennaro Gattuso Kevin Prince-Boateng Nicolas Burdisso Elkin Soto Pep Gaurdiola Lassana Diarra Jurgen Klopp Lucas Barrios Antonio da Silva Robert Mak Heurelho Gomes Andre Marriner Pinto Alavro Arbeloa Nikola Zigic Alexander Hleb Cameron Jerome

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