An impossible task? Calzona takes over Napoli 48 hours before facing Barca in Champions League

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ROME (AP) — If Francesco Calzona didn’t already know most of Napoli’s players, it might be an impossible task: He became coach of the defending Serie A champion 48 hours before facing Barcelona in the Champions League.

But Calzona knows Napoli through and through. He was an assistant to Maurizio Sarri with the Partenopei from 2015-18 and was on Luciano Spalletti’s staff in 2021-22.

Under Sarri, Calzona was credited with coming up with the idea of Dries Mertens’ highly successful move to a false 9 position. Then with Spalletti, he helped to lay the foundation for Napoli’s run to the Serie A title.

Calzona left before the title run when former Napoli captain Marek Hamsik — who still holds the club appearances record with 520 — suggested he take over as the coach of Slovakia’s national team.

In Calzona’s first job as a head coach, Slovakia successfully qualified for the European Championship.

Now the 55-year-old Calzona will direct a club for the first time and his debut could hardly come in a bigger match, with Barcelona visiting Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League last 16.

While he was announced on Monday, Calzona’s first training session in charge at Napoli didn’t come until Tuesday.

Calzona, who will also continue as Slovakia coach, faces a big challenge with Napoli on a five-match winless run in all competitions — which led to its second coaching change of the season.

Walter Mazzarri was fired on Monday after only 12 league matches, the same duration that Rudi Garcia lasted at the start of the season.

Having spent most of his coaching career under Sarri, whom he met when he was a coffee salesman in Tuscany, Calzona deploys more of an attacking style than Mazzarri. That should be good news for Napoli center forward Victor Osimhen, who is due to return against Barcelona after helping Nigeria reach the Africa Cup of Nations final.

As under Spalletti, Calzona will likely rely on midfielder Stanislav Lobotka — who also plays under the coach with Slovakia — as the team motor.

Still, it remains to be seen how Napoli will react under its fourth different coach in nine months — including Spalletti, who left after last season. Mired in ninth place in Serie A, Napoli is on course for one of the worst title defenses in Italian league history.

Calzona was given a contract only through the end of the season, after which there could be even bigger changes.

Osimhen, last season’s Serie A scoring leader, has indicated he will leave in June. Midfielder Piotr Zielinski has already agreed on a move to Inter Milan for next season. And goalkeeper Alex Meret could be on the way out, too.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/Soccer

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