SSC Napoli’s players on Thursday honored club legend Diego Maradona by stepping onto the pitch wearing his No. 10 jersey before their 2-0 UEFA Europa League win over HNK Rijeka.
“Diego is a legend and will never die,” Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso said. “Since yesterday you could see that the city breathed a different atmosphere. We hope to dedicate something important to him and win a trophy. In this city we have talked about it for too many years.”
Rijeka did not spoil the tribute with Napoli beating their modest rivals thanks to an own-goal from leftback Armando Anastasio before halftime.
The Naples-born player took a touch on a Matteo Politano goal-bound effort and was credited with the goal.
Hirving Lozano sealed victory with 15 minutes to go, firing in a Lorenzo Insigne cross.
Gattuso’s side ended their two-match losing streak at their home stadium to take top place in Group F, with Rijeka bottom without a win in four games.
“I have many good memories,” Gattuso said of Maradona. “I had the opportunity to talk many times with Diego, to have dinner several times with him. He has done so many extraordinary things. He made mistakes in his private life, but for what he did he will remain always alive. Diego came from another planet and he will live forever like all legends.”
“I would have liked to tackle him as a player,” former Italy World Cup winner Gattuso added.
Captain Insigne had earlier led the tributes alongside fans gathered outside the Stadio San Paolo before the game, Napoli’s first since Maradona’s death aged 60 on Wednesday.
All wearing black armbands, the team also wore Maradona’s iconic jersey during the team presentation and a minute’s silence, under a photograph projected on a large screen of the man who led Napoli to league titles in 1986-1987 and 1989-1990, as well as the UEFA Cup in 1988-1989.
Throughout the day, supporters thronged in front of the San Paolo, which could soon be renamed in honor of Maradona.
“I believe it is right to baptize the San Paolo with your name to still have you with us,” Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis wrote on the club’s Web site.
A plaque was put up on the gates of the stadium which read “Diego Armando Maradona Stadium” and bore the face of the fans’ hero.
Blue-white scarves, flowers, photographs of Maradona and shirts stamped with the No. 10 were left in memory of the player whose seven seasons between 1984 and 1991 left an indelible mark on Neapolitans.
Shortly before the match, Insigne and Napoli kitman Tommaso Starace left the stadium to join the tributes by laying a wreath at the foot of the gates.
“Maradona means a lot, not just to me, but to all Neapolitans. He has always stood up for us, he has always held us in his heart and we must do the same,” Insigne said.
Elsewhere, fellow Italian side AS Roma advanced to the round-of-32 with a 2-0 win at Romanian side CFR Cluj, while TSG 1899 Hoffenheim joined them after ensuring their respective passages from Group L.
Earlier, Jamie Vardy’s last-gasp equalizer in a thrilling 3-3 at SC Braga sent Leicester City through to the knockout rounds, where they were also joined by Arsenal, thanks to their 3-0 win at Molde.
Leicester looked dead and buried when Fransergio put the hosts 3-2 ahead in the first minute of stoppage-time, but Vardy stole in at the back post shortly after to tap in the goal that put the English Premier League side into the round-of-32.
Tottenham Hotspur are level on nine points with Group J leaders Royal Antwerp after a 4-0 thumping of bottom side PFC Ludogorets Razgrad.
Lille OSC missed out on qualification after they could only draw 1-1 with an AC Milan side missing the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Ligue 1 team are top of Group H, one point ahead of Milan and two ahead of Sparta Prague, who dumped Celtic out of the competition with a 4-1 thrashing in the Czech Republic.
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