July 13, 2011

Last season was one to remember for all Neapolitans as they witnessed easily their finest year since Diego Maradona fled the city 20 years ago. They saw first hand the undeniable rebirth of their club and the coming to fruition of their President Aurelio De Laurentiis' meticulous planning.

His leadership has taken the famous southern side from being declared bankrupt and forced into Italian soccer's third tier as recently as 2004, to automatic Champions League qualification this time round.

Not only that, but Napoli did so in magnificent style as coach Walter Mazzarri produced an almost perfectly balanced side. He found a system that combined an efficient and impressive defensive unit without the ball -- the joint second-best in Serie A -- with what was, for extended periods of the season, simply a breathtakingly ruthless attack.

Napoli's rampaging first choice front three contributed almost 73 percent of their total number of league goals, led by "el Matador" Edinson Cavani. They scored 43 of the team's 59 goals in Seria A. Cavani himself finished with 26, Marek Hamsik added 11 and Ezequiel Lavezzi rounded out the trio on just six.

Yet despite being the lowest scorer, the Argentine Lavezzi may well be the most irreplaceable of the three. He has been linked with a number of moves away from Naples since the season came to an end and now a serious bid has seemingly arrived from the Premier League. Manchester City appear to be targeting the player as Roberto Mancini's agent Giorgio De Giorgis told Radio CRC recently: "It's been around a month that the club have been dealing with Napoli for Lavezzi, and this is regardless of whether Tevez leaves. The interest from the English club can be considered real, but the price seems excessive because Lavezzi is an important player for Napoli."

That "excessive" price is suggested to be around the €30 million ($42M) mark, which seems high for a player not generally deemed to be among the world's best, and even more so given he is already 26 and unlikely to improve much further. So what is it about Lavezzi exactly that makes him not only so vital to Napoli but also sees him start games for Argentina while more well-known names sit on the bench?

To start with he is a highly versatile player, with the ability, skill and temperament to play anywhere across the front line, be it as a traditional support striker or on either wing. He is a superb crosser of the ball but he can also finish very well when placed in scoring positions. He is a firm fan favorite under the shadow of Vesuvius due to his Argentine heritage and explosive playing style.

Lavezzi has been at Napoli four years and has endeared himself to the fans with performances that have often echoed Maradona's time in the famous Azzurri shirt. However, while it is easy to look at his ability and skill there is another side to the player that it would be negligent to overlook. Lavezzi can, like his idol, be capable of brilliance, belligerence, immaturity and kindness all in equal measure.

Occasionally short-tempered, he has been known to involve himself in ugly incidents, a trait which last raised its head at the turn of the year. Lavezzi was spat at by Roma defender Aleandro Rosi and returned the gesture in kind. It's a petulance that was on display once more as he earned a yellow card for a frustrated tackle in Argentina's Copa America win over Costa Rica Monday. The subsequent suspension sees him ruled out of the quarterfinals.

Lavezzi has also engaged in a contract dispute with the club which almost saw him leave for Chelsea in 2009, his brinkmanship almost backfiring as De Laurentis does not tolerate many things that others see as part of modern soccer.

Another trait he shares with his hero is a penchant for attracting off-field drama. One of his numerous tattoos allegedly became the cause of a murder when one artist claimed the work as his own, much to the ire of a rival. That the Camorra (Neapolitan mafia) were seemingly involved only serves to intensify the comparison with el Diego. Yet much like Argentina's most famous son, Lavezzi also shows a compassionate, thoughtful side that teammates and coaches cannot fail to love, such as giving his beloved No. 7 shirt to Cavani last summer completely unprompted.

His presence in the team is further enhanced due to his excellent range and ability in passing the ball, completing 824 of 1064 attempts (77.44 percent). Lavezzi does this in key areas, finishing behind only Andrea Cossu with the second highest number of Serie A assists in 2010-11 with a prolific 12 to his name in 29 appearances. Accumulating assist after assist to his teammates, and factoring in his six strikes, means he either scored or created a goal every 127.4 minutes.

"Napoli is a religion, Diego Maradona is God, and Ezequiel Lavezzi is his heir," teammate Victor Ruiz memorably told Marca.

On top of this is his true specialty -- beating his man. It sounds simple but it is devastatingly effective, particularly in a league suffering -- Juventus' Milos Krasic aside -- from a dearth of true wingers. He receives the ball in space, goes past his man and, as he draws a couple more opponents to him, either lays the ball off to a now unmarked teammate or wins a free kick.

So adept is he at this that he suffered 91 fouls last season, the third most in Serie A behind only Udinese's Alexis Sanchez and Angelo Palombo of Sampdoria. It is easy to reach the conclusion that, because the opposition is so preoccupied with trying to stop him, that Lavezzi is precisely the reason Hamsik and Cavani have done so well.

Perhaps the clearest indicator is to look at the games he did not play a part in, particularly a three-game spell early in the new year when he was suspended for the aforementioned incident against Roma. That run yielded just a solitary win and, most worryingly, only a single goal as the side struggled to compensate for the loss of his invention.

His panache, creativity and imagination seem to make all around him better, a point not lost on his national team coach Sergio Batista. That "el Pocho" starts games for while Javier Pastore, Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di Maria are sidelined speaks volumes for Lavezzi's importance to any side. Roberto Mancini's admiration for the player is furthter testament to his value and the belief in some quarters that Ezequiel Lavezzi is in fact "the straw that stirs the drink."

Adam Digby is a Turin-based freelance writer covering Italian soccer. He can also be followed on Twitter at @adz77.

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