Everyone loves Luciano Spalletti. The coach of SSC Napoli is considered the man who has constructed a fabulous team from a good squad. "La grande bellezza" (the great beauty), this is how the Corriere dello Sport recently summed up the more than graceful game of Naples. Italy is unanimous in this assessment. No one in Italy is currently playing as beautifully as Napoli, the undisputed leader of Serie A standings by 15 points. Maybe not even in Europe.

In the second round of the Champions League, Spalletti meets SSC Napoli this Tuesday (21:00 in the F.A.Z. live ticker for the Champions League and Prime Video) against Eintracht Frankfurt, a supposedly easy lot in view of the competition. But Spalletti has been warning for days: "Eintracht is just as strong as we are!" Spalletti must be the spoilsport in enthusiastic Naples, a city that identifies with its football team like few other places. Everything is now becoming more difficult in the unexpected success, says the coach. A dropout, then the lightness would be gone, the creativity, the spectacle. All these wonderful attributes that have been awarded to SSC Napoli since the beginning of the season. "Woe betide us if we are not careful," warns Spalletti. Thinking one game at a time, that's his motto.

Wherever he goes, the Tuscan makes players and teams better. He invents the most courageous tricks, for example when he suddenly let Roma legend Francesco Totti play as a centre forward and years later sorted him out as dispensable. His former wife Ilary Blasi disparagingly referred to the coach as a "little man". Unavoidable skirmishes on a long road. Spalletti, 63 years old, also knows it the other way around, when luck was not yet to be imagined.

33 years after the last championship with Maradona

"We'll give the panda back to you, as long as you leave." Ultras had painted these words on a banner at the Maradona Stadium in May 2021. The coach, just new to the city, had had his small car stolen the previous October. Expectations were already high in Naples at that time. The fact that the team managed to qualify for the Champions League again after two years was not enough. It must be more now, 33 years after the last championship with Diego Armando Maradona. The Ultras presented then-captain Lorenzo Insigne with a pack of eggs as a metaphor for what they missed in the team.

Then came summer. The trainer rested on his vineyard in Tuscany, where he gets distance and presses wines. Playmaker Insigne wanted more salary, which he now receives at FC Toronto in Canada. Defensive boss Kalidou Koulibaly moved to Chelsea, and attacker Dries Mertens, Napoli's most successful goalscorer in the club's history, could not agree on a contract extension. The Ich-AGs loved by the fans were gone. But that was good for the team.

Spalletti, a master of adaptation, positioned Stanislav Lobotka in the 4-3-3 system as a central figure in front of the defense. The South Korean Kim Min-jae made defensive legend Koulibaly forgotten, a certain Khwitscha Kwarazchelia came from Georgia. Because of his dribbling, they call the 22-year-old "Kvaradona" in Naples. Striker Victor Osimhen, once active at VfL Wolfsburg, says it's a joy. He scored 18 goals in 19 Serie A games. There was only one in this year's Champions League.

In the group stage, Napoli prevailed spectacularly. In the city, they still rave about the 4-1 victory over Liverpool FC, the 3-0 win against Glasgow Rangers, the 5-1 win at Ajax Amsterdam. Expectations are extremely high after the first half of the season. "I have an obsession," says Spalletti. "I want to make the city of Naples happy." The community, which has its dark sides, should be the center of his attention.

After an agreed mass brawl in January at a motorway service station, the Ministry of the Interior banned the Napoli Ultras from attending away games in Italy for two months, but 2700 fans are allowed to attend in Frankfurt. Even the machinations of the club are not always beyond all doubt. For example, the public prosecutor's office in Naples is investigating the association for accounting fraud. The transfer of striker Osimhen in 2020 from OSC Lille for 72 million euros is said to have resulted in irregularities.

Spalletti has the biggest score to settle with himself. He is one of the most recognized professionals in Italy, almost always received top marks as a coach, because of the electrifying attacking play of his teams. He coached FC Empoli, Udinese Calcio, AS Roma, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Inter Milan, all played breathtakingly beautiful. But only in Russia he managed to win the championship. Napoli is Spalletti's big chance to finally win a major title in Italy. Some even dream of winning the Champions League.