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Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2017

Napoli’s last trip to the Santiago Bernabeu didn’t go so well. Fresh from celebrating being crowned Serie A champions for the first time in the 1986/87 campaign, the Partenopei were pitted against Real Madrid, who promptly showed Diego Maradona and Co. that they were not yet part of the European elite.

Under Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker, they would run out 2-0 winners thanks to a penalty from Michel and an own goal by the aptly named Fernando de Napoli, eventually eliminating the Italian side 3-1 on aggregate.

To make the game even more surreal, UEFA had forced the Spanish champions to play behind closed doors as a punishment for crowd trouble against Bayern Munich a year earlier, per Marca.

It is expected to be different when they go head-to-head once again this week, with the Football Italia website reporting that over 10,000 Napoli fans will make the trip despite their 3,900 allocated tickets selling out “within minutes.”

Indeed, that should see the Spanish stadium full to capacity as usual, with those visiting supporters also hoping to see a more favourable result this time around. The away side will arrive in good spirits, unbeaten in their last 18 matches after a late-October defeat to Juventus.

In truth, it took Napoli about a month to recover from that setback, but since December, they have been impressive, outscoring opponents by 39 goals to 15 across a 13-game spell. Winning all but two of those clashes, this is a side full of belief and one that will visit the Spanish capital looking to take the tie to Zinedine Zidane’s men.

But can they spring an upset against the reigning holders of the Champions League? While there are a number of players in blue who will need to shine if they are to do so, it will undoubtedly fall upon one man to make the difference for Napoli: coach Maurizio Sarri.

Simply put, the 58-year-old has been a revelation during his 18-month stint with the club, transforming them from the temperamental and leaky side they were under predecessor Rafael Benitez into a dangerous, cohesive and well-drilled unit capable of beating even the best teams.

Last year, they pushed Juventus all the way in the Serie A title race, but his work this season has been arguably even more impressive. Sarri not only helped the Partenopei overcome Gonzalo Higuain’s decision to join the Old Lady but also found a solution when his replacement was struck down by injury.

Summer signing Arkadiusz Milik quickly stepped into the void left by the Argentina star, netting seven goals in just 593 minutes of action before disaster struck. Limping out of action during October’s international break, statements from his club and the Polish FA (h/t ESPN FC) revealed the striker needed surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Sarri first attempted to field Manolo Gabbiadini in the central role of his 4-3-3 formation, only for him to fail so miserably that he was sold to Southampton in January. Instead, the coach opted to deploy Dries Mertens there and the Belgium flyer has seized the opportunity with both hands.

Given he is usually a winger and stands just 5’7” (1.69m) tall, it would be easy to assume that Sarri had followed the trend towards using a “false nine,” but nothing could be further from the truth.

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