ROME — A mountain of a man, Kalidou Koulibaly has a fitting nickname in “K2.”
At 6-foot-4 (1.95 metres) and nearly 200 pounds (90 kilograms), the Senegal centre back is an immovable force in Napoli’s defence.
He’s also been bold enough to soldier on through a trying season marred by acts of racism in his direction.
In December — on the day after Christmas — Milan’s venerable San Siro was the site when Inter Milan fans directed monkey noises at Koulibaly throughout a Serie A match.
Then there was a racist Snapchat video posted by an Arsenal fan during last week’s first leg of the Europa League quarterfinals, when Koulibaly’s own-goal contributed to a 2-0 win by the London club.
A clearly angered Koulibaly responded by scoring twice in Napoli’s 3-1 win at Chievo Verona on Sunday for his first goals this season in 42 matches in all competitions. It was also the first two-goal performance of Koulibaly’s career.
Now Koulibaly has his sights on overturning the 2-0 deficit to Arsenal in Thursday’s return leg at the San Paolo Stadium.
“We know what we did wrong and that we’re going to have to raise our level if we want to advance,” he said. “If we believe in ourselves to the very end we can pull off something really great.”
Added Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti: “It’s surprising to me that his first goals of the season didn’t come until April. Let’s hope it’s a good sign for Thursday.”
Napoli is chasing its first European trophy since Diego Maradona led the club to the UEFA Cup (the previous version of the Europa League) three decades ago.
“It will take courage, intelligence and heart,” Ancelotti said. “I didn’t see much courage in the first leg, while we were intelligent only in the second half. Heart is what we’ll put into tomorrow’s match, together with a dose of high intensity. It’s a huge opportunity that we’ve got to take advantage of. And we’ll be helped by an atmosphere that will be extraordinary.”
After beginning in the Champions League, Napoli is unbeaten at home in Europe this season with four wins and a draw — with 10 goals scored and only two conceded — and can take inspiration from four recent home wins over English clubs.
A 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the group stage of the 2011-12 Champions League eliminated the City side that went on to win the Premier League that season. Then in the last 16 that season, Napoli beat Chelsea 3-1 — a result that led to the Blues firing Andre Villas-Boas.
Arsenal itself was another victim at the San Paolo in the 2013-14 Champions League, when Jose Callejon — who is still a Napoli forward — scored the second goal of a 2-0 win in the group stage.
In October, Napoli striker Lorenzo Insigne sealed a 1-0 victory over Liverpool with a 90th-minute goal.
Meanwhile, Koulibaly, who joined Napoli in 2014, has helped make scoring at the San Paolo a serious challenge for visitors.
“We’re very angry over our performance in the first leg,” Koulibaly said. “We want to show our true faces.”