Bologna’s Twitter account raised the social media equivalent of the white flag last weekend. ‘Enough of that,’ ‘You can take him off now’, they cried. Only Bologna and their fans had had enough, though; the rest of us could have watched Marek Hamsik play all evening long. We’d still have watched the highlights the next day, too.
The Napoli skipper’s hat-trick – part of a 7-1 demolition, which also saw the Belgian Dries Mertens net a treble – was a joy to behold. Though the second and third goals were true show-stoppers, his header to open the scoring was, for me, the pick of the bunch. The precision, technique and timing with which he despatched Jose Callejon’s cross was simply superb.
As well as breaking Bologna’s hearts – and providing some snappy hashtags for the Rossoblu social media team - the Slovakian’s hat-trick took him to within six goals of Diego Maradona’s club record of 115 goals for Napoli. Though it would be pointless to compare anybody to Maradona’s legend in Naples, Hamsik’s emphatic performance in Bologna was the definition of talismanic – and we all know if there’s one thing Napoli fans love, it’s an iconic talisman. With his turbo-charged Mohican and extensive body-art, Hamsik could be a comic book football hero, and last Saturday’s performance was certainly of the Roy Race mould.
Hamsik, who joined Napoli from Brescia in 2007, has scored 11 goals so far this term and has seven assists in Serie A. Indeed, since joining the Partenopei, the Slovakian international’s combined tally of assists and goals has consistently hit double figures.
Despite not being blessed with electric pace, Hamsik has a terrific knack of arriving in the 18-yard-box at just the right moment. For every spectacular goal, such as the treble at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, there has been a close range rebound, the type of goal the game’s best poachers, such as Pippo Inzaghi, would be proud of. Perhaps Hamsik’s most important moment in a Napoli jersey was the crucial second goal he scored in the 2012 Coppa Italia Final – an explosive match against bitter rivals Juventus, which Napoli won 2-0 at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. His delicate, clipped finish rounded off a typically fluid Napoli counter-attack and sent his club’s supporters into raptures.
Hamsik’s relationship with the Napoli supporters, cultivated over a decade, goes some way to explaining his great loyalty to the club. There have, however, been testing times off the park for the Slovakian over the years. On more than one occasion, newspapers have reported that he has been robbed at gunpoint in Naples – sadly not the only time this has happened to a footballer in Italy, a situation that has led to the departures of some key players from their clubs.
Despite such troubles, and the fact that the Napoli captain has been linked with moves in the past, including to AC Milan, he has stayed faithful to the Partenopei. His situation at Napoli is similar to that of Daniele De Rossi at Roma, albeit De Rossi is a born-and-bred Roman. Though Coppa Italia triumphs have been the extent of both players’ success at their respective clubs, they have both turned down moves that would have undoubtedly led to more honours; both out of loyalty to their club and its supporters.
Players like this must be cherished. To the supporters of Napoli and Roma, having players such as Hamsik (local boy Insigne falls into this bracket, too), De Rossi and Francesco Totti is like having part of them out there on the park fighting with them – in Italian football they are referred to as bandiere, flagbearers. Admirably, this relationship with club and fans is more important to some players than counting medals and cash.
Although much loved by the Napoli faithful, and fans of Italian football in general, Hamsik is not widely recognised as one of Europe’s finest central midfielders, yet there are few who combine his work rate, dynamism and impeccable timing, not to mention his eye for goal. Perhaps this is because this season marks the Slovak’s tenth in Naples, only three of which have included Champions League football at the group stages - and only twice in this spell have they reached the knock-out stage of European club football’s premier tournament.
Napoli have made it beyond the group stages this season, though – Hamsik scored two goals as they topped their group with 11 points – and for the first leg of their last 16 tie, they travel to the home of the ‘Galacticos’ and Champions League holders, Real Madrid.
The Partenopei go into the clash as underdogs but will take a lot of confidence from recent performances. Summer signing, and Gonzalo Higuain’s replacement, Arkaduisz Milik’s injury in October led Maurizio Sarri to test a diminutive front trio of Lorenzo Insigne, Callejon and Mertens, ably supported by Hamsik. After early scepticism, the system has been a terrific success, with Napoli playing some breathtaking football so far this season. In January’s 2-1 victory against AC Milan at San Siro, Mertens’ reverse cross-field pass to set up Insigne’s opening goal was described as ‘scandalous’ by one commentator. The Belgian was at it again on Friday, with some audacious displays of skill in the 2-0 victory over Genoa.
The key for Napoli will be to make sure the tie is still alive going in to the second leg. A strong performance this evening – an away goal would be a big help – will set up a mouth-watering return leg at the San Paolo on March 7. Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Chelsea can all attest to how daunting an arena this can be when the going gets tough.
It may be a massive task – and hardly a reward for topping their Champions’ League group – but the two legs against Madrid will give Napoli, and their talismanic captain the perfect platform to show the rest of Europe just how good they are. And if Sarri’s team can perform, perhaps Magical Marek will finally start earning some of the European-wide credit he deserves.
One thing is for sure: it won’t be boring!
Words by Martin Dunlop: @Dunlop8
'Martin's passion for Italian football kicked off with the 'Notti Magiche' of Italia '90 - from Toto Schillachi to Ciao, the mascot. He thinks the San Siro stadium is the finest building in the world!'