The long road to Baku may mark the end of a longer wait for Maurizio Sarri as he closes in on a first major trophy in a career that has followed a unique path
BY SIMON HART
A penalty shoot-out may deliver a dose of instant, edge-of-the-seat drama, but at Stamford Bridge on the night of 9 May, as Chelsea’s semi-final with Eintracht Frankfurt concluded, one man kept a deliberate distance. The tall, bespectacled figure in the navy Chelsea tracksuit, manager Maurizio Sarri.
The Italian did not address his players beforehand, leaving his assistant Gianfranco Zola to deliver that task. “I don’t want to enter the pitch,” he said, putting it down to “superstition”. He could not even bear to watch the final few kicks, explaining to reporters: “I didn’t want to suffer.”
Sarri is, most definitely, a man who does things his way. His CV marks him out as different already – a man who did not work full time in football until after his 40th birthday. At Napoli, his former club, he smoked on the sidelines and remained untouched by his sport’s perennially whirring PR machines. After Napoli chose a home fixture against Juventus as the occasion to launch their new grey away kit, meaning both teams wore change strips, he delivered a distinctly off-message lament, saying: “I hoped to die before seeing Napoli against Juventus in grey versus yellow. No one who grew up collecting football stickers like me would have liked that.”
If that suggests a lack of diplomacy – “I am Tuscan, we are blunt,” he once explained – it also hints at a romantic outlook. Beneath the gruff exterior beats the heart of a genuine football man. Don’t forget that Sarri spent many years coaching for the sheer love of the game, while working in banking for one of Italy’s oldest financial organisations.
It was in the 1990s that he began moving his way through a long list of clubs on lowly rungs of the Italian football ladder. Yet once he had taken the decision to dedicate himself to coaching full time, he began climbing higher. In 2000, he took the reins of Sansovino, a Tuscan club in the sixth tier of Italian football, and led them to promotion as champions. There he earned the nickname ‘Mister 33’ – a reference to the 33 set plays he would prepare for dead-ball situations, underlining his meticulous attention to detail.
“It’s not easy to overcome difficulties.
We were able to. Now we deserve to win a trophy”
Ten clubs later, as the 55-year-old coach of Empoli, he finally made it to Serie A, steering them to promotion as runners-up in Serie B. The next season, 2014/15, he kept them in the top flight, before replacing Rafael Benítez at Napoli. It was a homecoming of sorts for Sarri. Although brought up in Tuscany after his father, Amerigo, a cyclist, moved the family north, he had been born in Naples and lived there till the age of five.
Sarri’s impact with Napoli was immediate: they were top of Serie A at the midway point of his first season and won all six of their games in the 2015/16 UEFA Europa League group stage with 22 goals scored (an augury of Chelsea’s top-scoring status this time round). Napoli ended that campaign second in the table behind Juventus. They were third in 2017, then second again in 2018, yet their points tally kept rising: 82 to 86 to 91.
According to Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis, Sarri “created a style that was admired everywhere and by everyone”. A 4-3-3 formation and a swift, short passing game, his midfielders moving the ball in neat, tight triangles. After losing top scorer Gonzalo Higuaín in 2016, he made the inspired move to deploy the diminutive Dries Mertens as a ‘false nine’. Mertens duly hit 28 league goals in 2016/17. Last September, the Enciclopedia Italiana added the new word ‘Sarrismo’, denoting his philosophy. The Napoli Ultras have not forgotten him either – this season a Sarri flag has remained on display at the San Paolo.
If Sarri has not yet felt such love from all sections of Stamford Bridge since replacing Antonio Conte, his efforts warrant praise according to ex-Blues winger Pat Nevin. “He’s done a phenomenal job changing the whole ethos of how they play and doing that in a Premier League season and being successful,” he says. Nevin points out that the 60-year-old has also secured Chelsea’s return to the UEFA Champions League – with a third-place finish, two spots higher than last season – and led them to two cup finals. The first, against Manchester City in the League Cup in February, ended with defeat in a penalty shoot-out. Tonight, who knows? For Sarri, it would mean the first major honour of his long career – and his first cup final victory since he took the Coppa Italia Serie D back to the picturesque Tuscan town of Monte San Savino in 2003.
And it is a trophy he believes his team warrant following a strong finish to the campaign, with two defeats in their last 18 fixtures. “We played the first final against Manchester City and lost,” he said. “So now we want to win. In our opinion, our group deserves to win. We were in trouble three months ago and here in England, if you’re in trouble, the level of opponents is very high and it’s not easy to overcome difficulties. We were able to do it. So now we deserve to win a trophy.”