Napoli went into the 2013/14 season with ambitions to be competitive in Champions League as well as compete for the Serie A title – Lo Scudetto. The Champions League campaign ended in proud heartbreak as the light blue heroes went out early after collecting an impressive 12 points in a group where they met Arsenal, Marseille, and Dortmund.
In the domestic league Roma started out as fire and lightning, but during the later part of autumn it became clear that Juventus, once again, was the team to beat. Napoli had a hard time keeping the pace set by the white and black from Turin, and after Christmas all hopes of winning the first championship since 1990 and only the third in club history have vanished into the thin southern air. Draws against Chievo and Bologna saw Benitez’s men drop off the front and recently these mediocre results were spiced up with the utter disaster that was the 0-3 defeat away to Atalanta in Bergamo.
It’s all in the mind – and the mind is fragile
A striking difference between the Napoli team in Champions League and in Serie A has been the difference in pace. When playing fast opponents such as Arsenal and Dortmund the Napoli players stepped up their own pace – no doubt encouraged by coach Benitez, who is very experienced in the European competitions. In the continental games you would see players like Inler and most notably Behrami battle as mad men while the attacking forces of Hamsik, Insigne, Higuain, and Callejon rotated the ball quickly and kept the opposing defenders on their toes.
In the Serie A games against less renowned and less prestigious teams this speed and grit has disappeared. Napoli have a lot of possession, but create few chances. The smaller teams are typically playing defensively and Napoli do not seem to have the means to open the defenses on a regular basis – despite playing the same players who managed to pull deserved victories out of games against some of the best teams in England and Germany. It smells of a coach who can prepare his team to perfection in Europe but have less of a clue when it comes to the very different games in the Serie A. It appears to be the opposite problem to the one Antonio Conte has with Juventus, and unfortunately for Napoli and Benitez the vast majority of the season’s games are played in the domestic league. This is also where you qualify for next years’ Champions League, which is the least that will satisfy president De Laurentiis as well as the club’s growing fan base.
It is imperative that Benitez learns how to prepare for every Serie A game. Napoli is not a mid-table club anymore. Everybody in and around the club wants to be in Europe’s elite competition every year and to fight for Lo Scudetto as often as possible. To rest the absolute stars like Higuain and Hamsik for a Coppa Italia game, like Benitez did during the horrible Atalanta game, is baffling to most Napoli fans and an underestimation of a decent side like Atalanta. Maybe it’s time for Benitez’s assistant, the former Napoli player Fabio Pecchia, a man with a decade of Serie A football under his belt, to teach his boss a lesson or two about the nature of the Italian game. The same problems were visible during the reign of former coach Walter Mazzarri, but the time for these issues has passed. It’s time to change the mindset into the one of a real top team and Benitez will have to prove that he is the man for the task.
The new men carrying new hopes
Some of the hopes of the Napoli fans are tied to the club’s new signings. Going into the January transfer window De Laurentiis promised a midfielder, a fullback, and a central defender to boost the strength of depth – and the president kept his promise. The most notable addition was the highly praised Jorginho bought from Hellas Verona. He has arrived along with defenders Henrique and Faouzi Ghoulam.
The 22-year old central midfielder Jorginho has shown great promise during his stay in Verona, and since he has Italian ancestors he even counts as an Italian. Central defender Henrique has been brought in to compete, especially with Federico Fernandez and Miguel Britos as neither seems cast in stone as Raul Albiol’s partner in the central defense. The Napoli defense has had huge problems, as woefully showcased against Atalanta, and Benitez is searching for the right central partnership. The coach didn’t trust former captain Cannavaro, who is now plying his trade for lowly Sassuolo after more than seven years as a certain starter under Reja, Donadoni, and Mazzarri. It will be interesting to see if Henrique brings true competition, or if he just fills in as fodder for Benitez’ rotational ways.
For the left full back position, the autumn saw the arrival of former French national Anthony Réveillère as back up for Colombian Juan Zuñiga, who is suffering a long term injury. Zuñiga’s compatriot and direct competitor Pablo Armero didn’t have the trust of the coach and is now sent on loan at West Ham in the English Premier League. Again it will be interesting to see if the newcomer Ghoulam will compete with Réveillère or if he’s just making up numbers till the time where Zuñiga most likely reclaims his well deserved position as first choice left back. There is also the possibility that Ghoulam will act as back-up for right back Christian Maggio, who because of Giandomenico Mesto’s injury has played nearly every game for the last 2-3 months.
Napoli will go on and up
All in all the Napoli team has been bolstered where needed the most, though we are still to see the quality of the new signings. The clear goal is to qualify for the Champions League this season and to mount a serious title challenge in the years to come. The ambitions are hard but not impossible to fulfill, as the club economy is good and that the negotiations with the city council concerning a new stadium, or a rebuilt San Paolo, seems to be going quite well. Napoli will probably not become a part of the core of absolute top teams in Europe, but seems set for a bright future lingering just around the top 10-15 mark.
Article written by Thorbjørn Thaarup
Thorbjørn is founder of http://ponderingcalcio.net/