MILAN: Former Napoli defender Paolo Cannavaro has played down Sassuolo’s ‘giant-killer’ status as the Serie A minnows look to claim another scalp on their way to an unlikely place in Europe next season.
Cannavaro was a reluctant departee from Napoli when he was transferred to Sassuolo in January 2014.
But the 34-year-old centre-back is now a pivotal part of Eusebio Di Francesco’s well-oiled, attacking outfit and has a simple explanation for their recent wave of success.
“This season we’re a lot more aware of our capabilities compared to last season,” Cannavaro, the 34-year-old younger brother of retired Italy international Fabio, told Sky Sport.
“We’re growing as a team and what we’ve achieved so far is simply down to our performances.”
Yet Sassuolo, who sit 10 points behind leaders Napoli in sixth place, are becoming the team none of this season’s ‘scudetto’ challengers want to face.
Promoted to Serie A in 2013, Sassuolo are the only team to have escaped being beaten by all five of this season’s title challengers.
De Francesco’s men beat Napoli at home on the opening day of the season, drew away to Roma, beat Juventus at home, drew at home with Fiorentina and stunned Inter Milan 1-0 thanks to a late Domenico Berardi penalty two weeks ago.
Since their reverse to the Tuscans, Napoli have put their mediocre start firmly behind them to finish top of Serie A at the halfway stage of the season for the first time in 26 years.
The last time was 1990 and Diego Maradona was still strutting his stuff at the San Paolo.
Napoli’s rise to the top prompt¬ed Maradona to claim last week: “If Napoli win the scudetto, I’ll fly to the city by helicopter to party with the fans.”
Napoli this weekend are the only title contenders playing at home, but with 19 games remaining and Juventus back in contention after a poor start, Maurizio Sarri’s men have it all to do.
Juventus travel to Udinese looking for a 10th consecutive league win and will be without Spanish striker Alvaro Morata, unless he makes a speedy recovery from ‘flu.
For the first time this season, coach Massimiliano Allegri is in a position to underline their objectives, telling Jtv in midweek: “We have to try and finish top and we’ve got the whole half of the season to achieve that.”
But with several teams firing on all fronts, he added: “It could all come down to the final day, so it will be important to collect as many points, and as many wins, as possible.”
Like Juve, Inter are only two points off the pace in third but Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci said: “If I had to name a team, for the way they play and what they’ve done in the first half of the season I’d have to say Napoli.”
The comment won’t have gone unnoticed by Inter, who travel to Atalanta in Saturday’s early fixture looking to make amends for conceding defeat twice in their past three games but with the chance to go top.
Brazilian Felipe Melo will sit out the last of a three-match suspension handed down for a karate kick on compatriot Lucas Biglia in a 2-1 defeat to Lazio last month.
But the Inter midfielder hit out: “People criticise us because they don’t like seeing Inter being near the top of the league. I’m sorry for them, but I don’t care.
“A lot of them would like to be in our place.”
Atalanta are on a run of four straight defeats, but another Inter slip-up would be embraced by the Nerazzurri’s titles rivals, including Fiorentina, who visit AC Milan Sunday looking to make amends for last week’s 3-1 reverse to Lazio.
Roma, in fifth at seven points behind, welcome Verona to the Stadio Olimpico for former coach Luciano Spalletti’s first game back in charge following the sacking of Rudi Garcia in midweek.