Rob Canavan takes a look at Napoli’s season so far, from their Champions League heartbreak, to the push for a Scudetto.
“We hoped for something better, but things turned out like they always do.” – Viktor Chernomydrin ex-Russian Prime Minister
These words were uttered in the years following the collapse of the USSR, after years of upheaval and near financial ruin; most of Russia’s natural resources had been apprehended by a small group of men, dubbed Oligarchs by the Western media. These resources had been acquired through very dubious means and it looked as if the People had not seized their chance. Once again, the many would be ruled by the few.
On another note, these words must echo the feelings of football fans the world over. At some point in a club’s history, things have gone awry. The board have overspent, or worse, embezzled the club’s cash. The Chairman has withdrawn his funding. Despite having a star-studded side on paper, your club has been relegated. That new stadium, promised for so many years, never even got as the local council’s office. We’ve all suffered at some point, whether in the past, or the present.
When I read these words, I immediately thought of SSC Napoli, or Napoli, as they are commonly known. Napoli is Italy’s fourth most supported team. Located in the south of Italy (the ‘Deep South’, I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist) or the Mezzogiorno, Napoli are easily the biggest club in the region. Despite their zealous support, the club have always underachieved. At the start of the 21st Century, Napoli went into financial meltdown and ended up in Serie C. Film Producer, Aurelio De Laurentiis took up the presidency of the club in 2004 and The Partenopei have been on the rise ever since.
After two second place finishes and a Coppa Italia triumph in 2012 (particularly sweet as it ended Juventus’ unbeaten run) coach Walter Matzarri left for Milanese giants, Internazionale, at the end of the 12-13 season. De Laurentiis decided it was time to appoint a ‘big name’ coach of proven pedigree, to break Juve’s dominance of Italian football. He opted for Rafa Benitez.
“Our best buy? That would be Benitez.” De Laurentiis
Serie A so far:
Benitez received substantial financial backing from De Laurentiis, beating Arsenal to the signing of Gonzalo Higuain. Jose Callejon, Pepe Reina (loan), Raul Albiol and Dries Mertens were also brought in that Summer and Jorginho and Faouzi Ghoulam arrived at the club in the January window. With these new players, Napoli were expected to push Juve for the Scudetto. Unfortunately, nobody told Roma. Under their new coach, Rudi Garcia, Roma kick-started the season by embarking on a 17 game unbeaten run, which saw them race into an early lead. The Vulpini were eventually pegged back by Juve and have all but secured second place, with 6 games to play.
Benitez was always going to face challenges at Napoli. He wanted to play with a four man defence. His predecessor, Matzarri had utilised a three man defence with wing backs in a 3-5-1 system. Napoli have displayed a touch of defensive frailty, as the players adjust to the demands of Benitez’s philosophy. This frailty has led to a very inconsistent domestic season so far. This inconsistency was highlighted over the last two league fixtures, as the Partenopei defeated Juve at the San Paolo before losing 1-0, away to Parma.
At this point, I feel it is worth mentioning that this is no normal season in Serie A. Juventus are on course for a 100 point finish and Roma, who are helped by their absence from European competition, are on a club record tally of 76 points, would have been celebrating a fourth Scudetto in any normal season. Napoli lie just 9 points behind Roma, so their season cannot be considered a failure. Put simply, the top three in Italy have been in sensational form, obliterating the competition
The integration of the new players and the change of system has hit Napoli hard and they will have to make do with third place. Not a bad start. De Laurentiis has repeatedly backed Benitez. He recently said:
“I picked Benitez to win, but many people need to understand that you cannot win immediately.”
Benitez can use this season to refine his tactics and figure out his best starting eleven. The real Scudetto challenge will be launched next season.
The Cup Competitions; Champions League, Europa League and Coppa Italia:
Champions League: Napoli were drawn with Arsenal, Dortmund and Marseille in the so called group of death. Despite accumulating 12 points, usually enough to see a team top their group, Napoli were knocked out on goal difference, following a late Dortmund goal away to Marseille. It was a cruel blow. The club exited Europe’s premier competition and would now take part in the Europa League.
Europa League: Napoli faced Welsh side Swansea City in the round of 32. After a goalless draw in South Wales, Napoli progressed courtesy of a 3-1 win, after extra time. Next up were Portuguese giants, Porto. Porto won 1-0 at the Dragao and after drawing 2-2 at the San Paolo, Napoli were eliminated. The Porto ties had been pulsating, with chances going begging for both teams. In the end, Porto made the least mistakes and so they progressed. Napoli’s dreams of European glory under Benitez went up in smoke. For the moment, that is.
The defining moment of Napoli’s Coppa Italia run came in the second leg of the semi-finals, when the Partenopei hosted Roma. The first leg in the Olimpico had finished 3-2 to Roma, Gervinho nicking a late winner to give the home side a slender lead. At San Paolo, Napoli demolished Roma 3-0. To beat Garcia’s team by this margin is an astonishing achievement, matched only by Juventus’ 3-0 triumph against the capital club in the league. Benitez continued his excellent record in cup competitions and Napoli will play Fiorentina in the Coppa final next month.
Conclusion: Benitez’s first season in Naples must be considered a success. He is on the cusp of leading Napoli to their fifth Coppa Italia triumph and Champions League football is virtually guaranteed for next season. Another positive of the Benitez era thus far, is the emergence of Insigne as a regular first team player. Insigne is a local boy and he struggled to force his way into former coach Mazzari’s match day squads. Mazzari is not renowned for his trust in young players. Under Benitez, Insigne has flourished, scoring 5 goals to date (April 9th) and setting up 5 for his teammates.
After a season of getting used to his new club (and his players getting used to their new manager) I expect Napoli to be a force in both Serie A and Europe next season. De Laurentiis believes in Benitez’s plans for the club and he will probably provide a sizeable transfer kitty for the coming summer window. This will allow Benitez to add depth to his squad. We could be looking at a three-way race for the Scudetto next season, with Roma, Juventus and Napoli vying for top spot. Here’s hoping.
Rob Canavan. @whitesfan