Napoli are a club that will always be overshadowed by their past, no matter what. Argentine legend Diego Maradona brought International fame to Naples in the late eighties but the Pertenopei have failed to scale similar heights since then. After they finished second in the 2012-13 season, former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was given the task to bring back the title home after a period of over two decades.
Napoli managed the same points last season (78) as they did in 2012-13, yet finished third in the standings as Juventus and Roma finished above. To make matters worse Benitez’s side were on the wrong end of the Champions League playoff draw and they lost to Athletic Bilbao to squander a position in Europe’s elite club competition. They started the Serie A in disastrous fashion too but recent results have seen them go up to third in the table; yet they are 9 points off the top spot. A top three finish has always been the prime target; the bare minimum if you call it that way, but can they realistically challenge for the Scudetto?
Recent victories over Roma and Fiorentina have given great encouragement but it’s not about the top teams that matter. Even while in charge at Liverpool, Benitez masterminded wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United on a regular basis. It were the so called ‘mid table teams’ which always bothered the Reds. The same trend also looks to carry on at the San Paolo.
On Sunday Napoli led 2-0 against an injury hit out of Cagliari, yet finished the game on a 3-3 scoreline. This season they have failed to beat Atalanta, Udinese and have dropped points against Palermo and Inter Milan from winning positions. Last term too, they failed to beat Sassuolo and teams who occupy the bottom half of the table. While Napoli need no motivation to beat teams like Juventus, Roma (twice last season), Fiorentina or Milan this is where they lose out on challenging for the title. However when it comes to Roma or Juventus, they steamroll past the opposition.
Napoli have been unlucky too; they crashed out of the group stages due to goal difference in the Champions League despite beating Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. They finished with 12 points from 6 games and deserved to qualify for the knockout stages. Another key aspect has been Marek Hamsik’s inexplicable loss of form. The Slovakian hasn’t shown a strong sense of leadership and looks out of sorts every game.
However Benitez can ill afford to drop him, which would anger the home faithful. There have been suggestions that Hamsik thrives playing in space in a 3-5-2 setup but in reality he has struggled to make any impact despite playing in the central attacking role behind Gonzalo Higuain in the 4-2-3-1 setup.
Defensively Napoli have been boosted by Kalidou Koluibaly‘s superb form but the usual suspects remain. Christian Maggio and Faouzi Ghoulam switch off and get caught giving the ball away while Raul Albiol has been guilty of getting caught quite often.
Gonzalo Higuain’s return to form has been a huge boost but Lorenzo Insigne who was slowly finding his feet is ruled out of the season, which is a huge blow. Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens need to take extra responsibility in the coming fixtures and certainly Hamsik needs to lead from the front if Napoli are to challenge for the title. Else the dream would remain elusive this time out as well. Or is already out of reach?