After a third-placed finish in Serie A last term, Napoli started the 2014-15 campaign in dire fashion both domestically and on the continent.
Losing in the Champions League qualifying round against Athletic Bilbao was a hammer blow for the San Paolo outfit and Italian football as a whole; as such Rafa Benítez’s charges have to make do with the Europa League this season.
With the likes of star striker Gonzalo Higuaín suffering from a World Cup hangover, the team also looked lacklustre in the early weeks of the Serie A campaign, but an unbeaten domestic streak of eight games has the club back on track.
A hard-fought 1-0 away win over Fiorentina at the weekend moved Napoli into third place once more, as Benitez’s side continues to improve week-on-week.
In the first half the visitors looked like the superior side but failed to capitalise on a number of excellent situations.
The likes of Marek Hamšík, Dries Mertens and new Spain call-up José Callejon looked dangerous in possession but the end product was lacking at times; criminal when a striker as potent as Higuaín leads the team’s line.
In the end the Argentine poacher capitalised on a Viola defensive mistake to net the decisive goal but Benítez and the travelling support had to endure an edgy last five minutes as Fiorentina pushed for an equaliser.
In truth the Naples outfit should have killed the game as a contest in the first 45, but the signs of improvement are there for all to see and Napoli will certainly be in the running for a top three place again this season.
The side’s attacking players have gained acclaim over recent seasons and the team will continue to be a real threat in the opposition half, but it appears that Benítez has unearthed a real defensive star in the summer transfer market.
Alongside seasoned defender Raúl Albiol in the heart of the visiting defence, Kalidou Koulibaly put in an assured performance worthy of the man of the match accolade against Fiorentina.
The 23-year-old French centre-half joined the Serie A powerhouses from Racing Genk in the off-season for a fee believed to be in the region of €10 million.
Koulibaly has since started all 11 of Napoli’s Serie A games this term and already looks like an essential member of Benítez’s side.
His physical attributes are there for all to see, with pace and strength in abundance; the defender kept Fiorentina’s dangerous attacking talent Khouma Babacar quiet for 90 minutes in Florence.
However, while Albiol was guilty of some rash and askew clearances against the Viola, Koulibaly looked very composed and comfortable in possession.
With the Stadio Artemio Franchi crowd urging the hosts to grab a late equaliser, Koulibaly capped off a fine display by clearing a Manuel Pasqual shot off his own line with goalkeeper Rafael beaten.
Napoli were guilty of conceding too many goals last season; despite scoring only three goals less than champions Juventus over the 2013-14 season, Benítez’s men shipped 16 more than the Bianconeri.
The acquisition and impressive early form of Koulibaly will go some way to solidifying Napoli’s rearguard, which will be key if the side are to pose a threat to Juve this season.
The signs are there that Napoli again look to be one of the few teams able to challenge Juventus and the San Paolo outfit seem to be progressing after a slow start.
For Koulibaly, international recognition cannot be far off. The gifted enforcer represented France at under-20 level a few years ago, winning 11 caps, and surely will be in Didier Deschamps’ thoughts for a senior call-up should his impressive form continue.