Something will feel amiss when Maurizio Sarri steps foot back inside the Stadio San Paolo on Sunday evening.
The roaring atmosphere will likely remain, as the emotional reunion stirs both spirit and passion. The noise, however, will mask something far more sinister; a complete deterioration at the foundations of a club once tipped for a bright new dawn.
Make no mistake about it, Sarri is returning to the ruins of Naples. The club he once built up in such extraordinary fashion to its great self of old is waning, rapidly.
All eyes are on Maurizio Sarri this weekend, as he embarks on an emotional return to Naples
In truth Sarri will go up against a Napoli side which bears no reminiscent elements of his blueprint, having been ripped apart by inner turmoil and a lack of clear direction.
Sarri was a humble currency trader before making his foray into football, putting in hours upon hours of hard graft in the amateur ranks, steadily working his way up before eventually landing a position at the helm of his birth club Napoli.
His rise was movie script worthy, though to predict an outpouring of love for the prodigal son on his first return would be short-sighted.
We have to rewind to May 2018, when tensions boiled over and Napoli decided their relationship with Sarri had gone as far as it could.
In the weeks leading up to the dismissal fans rallied in the stands, sporting tifos in support of their beloved manager and bellowing his name around the deep, spherical stadium that is the creaking San Paolo.
Sarri enjoyed the happiest of times at Napoli, creating an exciting team with stunning football
SARRI AT NAPOLI
Games – 148
Wins – 98
Draws – 25
Defeats – 25
Napoli ultras were rosy-eyed when it came to Sarri, the man who guided their side agonizingly close to the Serie A title and ending years of heartache.
Sarri followed up his 2016/17 exploits by starting the season with his Napoli team in blistering form, setting a record for most consecutive wins along the way.
Despite hammering into the Christmas break atop of the pile, the team would only manage another second placed finish, just four points behind Juventus.
It hurt, naturally, but there was an acceptance that the Naples outfit were on par with the Turin heavyweights and would contest the title season upon season. Glory was within reach.
And then, just like that, it went sour. Sarri was chopped, and Chelsea zipped in to swiftly acquire his services.
‘They broke my heart,’ Sarri would later say about his Napoli departure. He had, after all, given his all to the famous sky blue shirt.
‘Sarriball’ became renowned throughout European football, with lightning sequences of play combined with carefully crafted attacks and a beautiful retention of possession.
After only narrowly defeating Sarri’s Napoli side in the Champions League, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola proclaimed he was ‘in love’ with the Italian’s style of play.
‘He’s one of the absolute best,’ Guardiola said of Sarri. ‘We judge people on what they’ve won, but the football played by Napoli this season has been out of this world. Seeing Napoli play is a spectacle.’
The truth was Sarri was without a trophy. He was all art and no prizes, but many took it as gospel that Napoli’s development was accelerating at such a rate that silverware would naturally follow.
Now Napoli are on their knees, a shadow of their former self and leagues behind foe Juventus
Sarri broke Napoli hearts when he accepted a return to Italy with the team he once opposed
Coppa Italia Serie D (Sansovino 2003)
Europa League (Chelsea 2019)
Panchina d’Argento 13/14
Panchina d’Oro 15/16
Enzo Bearzot award 2017
Serie A Coach of the Year 16/17
Fans wept in the stands as local hero Sarri made his last stand in the Napoli dug-out, though a quiet optimism remained in place that the club was of a strong enough level to continue it’s ascent, particularly under the esteemed incoming boss Carlo Ancelotti.
But it wasn’t to be. Sarri’s departure would send Napoli off the rails, slowly at first, before gathering much more momentum. The rot would set in.
Ancelotti was given his marching orders after 16 months in charge in Naples. In his first campaign, he finished second and only failed to make the round of 16 in the Champions League because of a tiebreaker (The Italians were level on points and goal difference with eventual winners Liverpool). A last-ditch Alisson save was ultimately the only thing to separate the sides.
The hob however had been turned up to full heat, and the Napoli boiling pot was about to imminently bubble over.
A ‘player mutiny’ this season typified how lost Napoli as a club had truly become. After the Salzburg Champions League group game, the players rebelled, refusing to return to the team camp and went home.
Ancelotti and his staff were left as the only ones to spend the night at the training ground, and club president Aurelio De Laurentiis immediately lost his cool.
The large crack on a wall in Naples shows where fans ripped down a plaque of tribute to Sarri
The plaque was removed, with the public gesture dividing and already fragmented fan-base
In Sarri’s final days at Napoli the ultras passionately rallied behind him and showed affection
The steely and straight-talking film producer was left incensed after his son, who works at the club, had endured a verbal altercation with some players after ordering them – unsuccessfully – to return with immediate effect.
With the axing of serial winner Ancelotti, Napoli adhered to the classic out of the frying pan, into the fire situation. The hot-headed and erratic Gennaro Gattuso was brought on board, and to say things have gone downhill would be an understatement.
Results are abysmal, the mood hasn’t lifted and the squad do not appear to taken to the abrasive new manager.
Gonzalo Higuain, who became one of the world’s finest strikers under Sarri, also featured for Gattuso at AC Milan during a miserable loan spell. It was during his time at the San Siro he accused Gattuso of merely trying and failing to copy Sarri, and the comments still blister the 42-year-old to this day.
Gattuso will go up against Sarri in the dug-out on Sunday yet, in extraordinary circumstances, De Laurentiis has already publicly expressed his regret at hiring the former AC Milan pitbull and admitted parting with Ancelotti had not been a wise move.
And so, in among this ugly mire and unclear future, Sarri re-enters the picture with the opportunity to slay his beloved former side at their lowest ebb.
Napoli’s knee-jerk reaction to appoint Gennaro Gattuso has failed, with reoccuring defeats
Gonzalo Higuain, once Sarri’s golden boy, offended Gattuso by branding him a copy merchant
Juve lead the division with a four-point margin, having lost only one game all season. Napoli, meanwhile, languish in 13th having won just one match in their last five. Champions League hopes are rapidly evaporating.
Tears welled in the eyes the last time Sarri prowled the San Paolo touchline and, when he does so again this weekend while chewing away at his ever-present cigarette butt, they may well do so once more.
Whether tears of regret or tears of anger, it remains to be seen. The same Napoli fans who adored Sarri made the very public gesture of ripping down a Neapolitan plaque dedicated to his work for the team.
The act immediately divided an already fragmented fan-base, adding to the ever growing headache. Sarri once saw Juve as the bitter enemy, but here he was about to return to his homeland and add to their reign of pure dominance. It was too much for the Naples faithful to take.
Napoli have lost four of their five Serie A matches since Gattuso took charge, meaning the new boss is clinging on to this fixture as a life-line. Beat Juve and the momentum will be huge.
What is more, humiliate former golden-boy Sarri upon his return and the ultras will take note, regardless of whether deep down it plucks at the heart strings.
As he showed repeatedly during his playing days Gattuso has the heart for the fight, regardless of the opponent. This time, though, it is different.
Sarri now mentors the likes of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo while Napoli are in Serie A free-fall
Picture a saloon bar, a last-stand situation. Gattuso is planning to shoot his shot on Sunday with the two rather opposites extremes as the potential outcome.
Win, and he will fight on with Napoli and try to regain both status and pride. Lose the match and, as reported by Sportsmail, the Italian legend is giving serious consideration to resignation after just over a month in charge.
Sarri declared Juve ‘the crowning moment’ of his career upon his unveiling last summer. At Napoli he was royalty, but now he must return to his former monarchy and crumble the last of the foundations.
Football has little place for sentimentality. After his arrival in England with Chelsea, Sarri famously mused: ‘I love the game. I just love football and the rest is a consequence.’
The city of Naples now sits quietly in wait, to learn just how damning those consequences could be.