Trailing leaders Juventus by only three points with eight games remaining, with third-placed Roma ten points off top spot, Napoli are realistically the only remaining challengers to The Old Lady’s attempt to record their 32nd Serie A title.
As the highest scorers in the league, with 29-goal Gonzalo Higuain again proving their main attacking force, their claim as Italy’s biggest success story this season gains further weight with the fact that they also possess the league’s second best defence – trailing only Juve’s.
So while Higuain’s name may be dominating the pink print of Italian sports papers as the highest scorer in Europe, Maurizio Sarri’s side also have their key defensive unit to thank for their resurgence.
At the heart of it is Senegal international Kalidou Koulibaly, the 24-year-old proving to be a true defensive colossus in a Napoli rearguard that has recorded 12 clean sheets. His powerful, commanding and – most importantly of all – consistent displays have garnered attention from the prying eyes of Europe’s best, with Bayern Munich arguably the biggest of the lot.
But reports this week claim that Manchester United scouts have also been in attendance at the Stadio San Paolo recently, suggesting that a move to Old Trafford could be another option for the man signed from Belgium’s Racing Genk in the summer of 2014.
But while Koulibaly’s talent would surely be a strong addition, are defensive reinforcements really where United should be prioritising?
While a late surge could yet guarantee Louis Van Gaal’s men Champions League qualification (15/8 to finish in the top four), few will claim that this campaign has been an overriding success for the 20-time champions.
While the FA Cup provides a remaining glint of hope for some silverware (7/2 to lift the trophy), United’s season on the whole has been one of underwhelming frustration and disappointment, typified by a bruising exit to Liverpool in Europe.
Yet a glance at the stats show that United boast the league’s second best defensive record, trailing only Spurs. It is of course true that, in being forced to play the likes of Michael Carrick out of position in central defence, the signs are that United could do with additional depth in defence.
But on the flip side, with accomplished performers Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw managing only 25 league appearances between them this season due to a succession of injuries, Van Gaal will know that having all three to choose from next season will present to him a welcome scenario that the old cliché describes.
The Dutchman is a renowned strategist and organiser, and the fact United have conceded so few goals despite a number of defensive absences is testament to that. Unfortunately for him, he’s not found it so easy to get his side to play the easy-on-the-eye flowing football that the Theatre of Dreams was once renowned for.
Again the stats back up the argument. United have managed only 38 goals this season. Of the sides currently in the top half, only Stoke have scored fewer. They’ve hit a blank in 9 league games, racking up five 0-0 draws. Most surprisingly of all, not a single member of the United squad have hit double figures.
So when fanzines, phone-ins and messageboards consistently feature disparaging words like “pedestrian”, “boring” and “negative”, perhaps a big-money defensive signing isn’t quite the recruitment required to get the fans back on side.
Instead a focus on getting his existing defenders on the mend should allow United to save the pennies and spend them on what the fans really want – goals.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.