Napoli relaunch Champions League push as Jesus racism storm rumbles on

football29 March 2024 04:28| © AFP
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Juan Jesus © Gallo Images

Napoli renew their bid for Champions League football on Saturday when they take on rivals Atalanta with the Juan Jesus racism storm making it a bitter Easter weekend for the ailing Scudetto holders.

Italy's outgoing champions return from the international break outraged over Tuesday's decision by the Italian Football Federation's disciplinary tribunal to clear Inter Milan's Francesco Acerbi of racially abusing Brazilian Jesus.

Racism from the stands is depressingly common in Italian football, where neo-fascist fan groups have been a common sight since at least the 1970s.

But such a serious accusation – which Acerbi denies despite apologising to Jesus on the pitch – aimed at a current Italy player caused a huge controversy which carried right through the international break.

The episode left a sour enough feeling in Naples that Napoli decided to pull their support for FIGC-sponsored anti-racism initiatives, calling them "purely cosmetic".


Italy's outgoing champions have also shown signs of life on the pitch since being taken over by Francesco Calzona last month and fought back impressively to stall Inter's solo title march a fortnight ago.

Napoli are seventh and nine points behind fourth-placed Bologna with nine matches remaining, a gap which would ordinarily leave them way off the pace for the Champions League.

However Italy are favourites for a fifth spot in Europe's top club competition, which means Napoli still have an outside chance of salvaging something from a largely disastrous season.

Roma currently sit in fifth, six points in front of Napoli ahead of their trip to Lecce on Easter Monday, and are one of three direct rivals for the Champions League yet to visit the Stadio Diego Maradona.

Sixth-placed Atalanta are the first of that trio with Bologna heading south in mid-May as the season draws towards its climax.

Atalanta are two points ahead of Napoli and have a game in hand on the rest of the Champions League challengers after their last match was postponed due to Fiorentina's general manager Giuseppe "Joe" Barone being taken ill.

Barone subsequently died, leaving Fiorentina stunned and both clubs wondering when they can fulfil their unplayed fixture.

Italian Cup and European commitments have jammed up the two team's respective schedules with less than two months of the season to go.

Calzona may have to do without star winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia who exited Georgia's historic Euro 2024 play-off triumph in extra-time, while in-form Belgium forward Charles De Ketelaere is also a doubt for Atalanta.

However Victor Osimhen will be back up front for Napoli after missing the 1-1 draw at Inter with a hamstring problem.

Meanwhile Acerbi is set to start Inter's home clash with relegation-threatened Empoli on Easter Monday after being spared a minimum 10-match ban as the FIGC tribunal found insufficient proof of racist abuse.

Inter need 14 more points to guarantee their 20th league title and, with their closest rivals AC Milan at Fiorentina on Saturday night, Monday could be a chance to take another step towards glory.


Jesus is set to start against Atalanta in a match which kicks off the Easter action in Italy and he will inevitably be the focus of attention after a messy two weeks away from domestic football.

The 32-year-old has claimed a spot in the centre of Napoli's defence ahead of countryman Natan who was supposed to take the place of Kim Min-jae in the summer but failed to plug the gap left by the South Korean's departure for Bayern Munich.

He impressed at Inter, where he earned Napoli a point, and handled himself creditably during the racism controversy when he had initially wanted to leave the incident on the San Siro pitch.


14 - Inter's huge lead at the top of Serie A with nine games remaining.

6 - The points gap separating Napoli and Roma.



Napoli v Atalanta (1:30pm), Genoa v Frosinone, Torino v Monza (both 4pm), Lazio v Juventus (7pm), Fiorentina v AC Milan (9:45pm)


Bologna v Salernitana (12:30pm), Cagliari v Verona, Sassuolo v Udinese (3pm), Lecce v Roma (6pm), Inter Milan v Empoli (8:45pm)