Gennaro Gattuso’s reign as Napoli coach may have started amid turmoil but the previous Italy international has put the Serie A club on the trail towards a possible Champions League triumph against Barcelona.
The southern Italians head for the Camp Nou on Saturday with a first-ever Champions League quarter-final berth beckoning.
“We certainly want to write an important page in our history,” said Gattuso of a feat which not even Argentine legend Diego Maradona managed to achieve with the club. Both sides are 1-1 after the last 16, the first leg within the San Paulo Stadium in February. But Lionel Messi’s Spaniards haven’t been beaten at home in the Champions League in seven years as they aim a 13th consecutive quarter-final berth.
Barcelona finished second in La Liga while Napoli was seventh in Serie A, but having secured a Europa League spot because of their Italian Cup victory.
Gattuso admitted his “head was already on Barcelona” as his side bound up their league season with a 3-1 win over Lazio last weekend. “We will play on a high-level stage and we want to be worthy of it,” he said.
The big question will be how to stop six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi, a problem which former AC Milan midfielder Gattuso would have happily tackled as a player.
“I can mark Messi only in my dreams, or on my son’s PlayStation,” said the 42-year-old former Glasgow Rangers player, who won two Champions League titles with AC Milan.
“We are ready to face Barcelona. we’ve our style, we are prepared. But they need one player named Messi who can leave ten players behind.” As a player, Gattuso had a fiery reputation, with a dogged never-say-die attitude.
‘The Almighty God of Football’
In Naples, quite rage he has brought calm to a room traumatized after a disastrous half of the season under Carlo Ancelotti, his former coach in Milan. This despite sparse coaching credentials, coming through Sion, Palermo, OFI Crete, Pisa, and his beloved Milan before arriving in Naples.
He was harshly judged after his 18 months at AC Milan despite their fifth-place finish last season, missing out on the Champions League by one point. But his successor Marco Giampaolo was sacked after just seven matches.
“It’s a profession that can’t be learned from books but by getting knocked within the teeth. I even have had a couple of failures and can have more,” said Gattuso.
Since the top of January, and after a difficult start to life in Naples with the team plunging to 13th position and Gattuso facing ridicule, the team is reborn. He has given confidence back to players including Lorenzo Insigne, Nikola Maksimovic, and Kalidou Koulibaly.
His reputation as a 2006 world cup star and two-time Champions League and Serie A winner holds weight within the room, along with his straight-talking style, and work ethic.
“(Gattuso) Rino is the most respected coach within the room since I have been here,” said Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis. Gattuso’s first trophy came within the Italian Cup just days after the death of his younger sister.
Napoli won a dramatic penalty shootout against Juventus in Rome for their first trophy in six years — a feat not achieved under Gattuso’s predecessors Maurizio Sarri and Ancelotti.
“There’s a God of football, who makes you reap all that you’ve sown,” said Gattuso. “For me, it’s serious work, which I do with great passion, I know I can’t relax for a second.”
In Barcelona, Napoli might be without forwarding Insigne, who has scored 12 goals altogether competitions this season, because Italy forward struggles with a thigh injury.
But club record scorer Dries Mertens, with 16 goals including within the first leg, will play along with side Spanish midfielder Fabian Ruiz, hoping to make an impact on home soil.