In the first of a three part series tackling Italy’s three clubs in this season’s Champions League, Michelle Bonsu weighs up Napoli’s hopes in the competition. Check back tomorrow, when Michelle will be looking at Juventus, and on Sunday for her piece on AC Milan.
In 1958, during the World Cup in Sweden, there were four teams placed together in the same group—Brazil, England, Austria, and the former Soviet Union—which the Swedish press described as giganternas kamp (or “battle of giants”). Twelve years later, that title, known as el grupo de la muerte (“group of death”) was bestowed on the quartet comprised of Brazil, England, Romania, and Czechoslovakia in Mexico and again during the 1982 World Cup in Spain with the trio of Italy, Brazil, and Argentina.
Some feel that the term is a mere oversimplification or a clichéd, hackneyed statement that has been overused to the point that it’s no longer a chic way of describing an interesting group of teams within any kind of football tournament. Conversely, others feel that it’s a more than apt description for the toughest group that will certainly feature some of the most interesting clashes of the entire event. Whatever one may think is one’s prerogative, but either way, quite like the World Cup or the EUROs, one would be hard-pressed to think of any Champions League edition that hasn’t had a difficult group in which any of the four participants have a good chance at getting out, and in which two tough teams will be sent packing after a dozen mouth-watering fixtures.
This year’s “Group of Death” is undoubtedly Group F, featuring Marseille, Arsenal, Napoli, and last year’s Champions League and Bundesliga runners-up Borussia Dortmund. For the Partenopei, this will be the second time in recent years that they find themselves in a tricky group, as two seasons ago they were grouped with Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Villarreal and managed to come out in second with three wins, two draws, and one loss before being knocked out by eventual title winners Chelsea by a 5-4 loss on aggregate. Despite the disappointment for their supporters, their run was quite impressive considering that it was the first time the Southern Italian club had ever graced the stage of Europe’s premier football competition and managed to hold their own in a group that many had expected them to be easily brushed aside by the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich. In fact, their sole loss to die Roten was by a respectable 3-2 in the away tie after tying the Bavarian giants previously 1-1 at home. And in their Sweet 16 clash with the Blues, were it not for defender Branislav Ivanović’s 105th minute goal, the game might have gone onto penalties—and as we’re all aware, spot-kicks are a crapshoot in terms of predicting a winner.
Due to their inability to finish in the top three in Serie A that season, Napoli had to contend with the Europa League the next season and failed to repeat their same success in the Champions League – winning three, losing three and then being knocked out by Czech outfit Viktoria Plzen 5-0 on aggregate in the round of 32. But, what they were unable to do in continental competition, they redeemed themselves in the league with a second-placed finish behind Juventus which ensured that they’d directly qualify for this year’s edition without having to go through the play-off rounds.
This past summer, they showed the sale of star striker Edinson Cavani to PSG was not going to put a dent in their armour—as they went on to acquire former Real Madrid attackers Gonzalo Higuaín and José Callejón, PSV midfielder Dries Mertens and others with the approximate €64 million pay-out, as well as Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina on loan with every intention to become a force not just in Italy, but on the continent as well.
After a flying start in the league, Rafa Benitez’s men showed that they were certainly not going to be the whipping boys of Group F by defeating Dortmund in their opening fixture in front of their home fans. Yes, perhaps some may say that their 2-1 defeat of last year’s Champions League runners up (with die Schwarzgelben’s only goal coming courtesy of Juan Zúñiga who turned Marco Reus’s cross into his own net), was a victory won by the skin of their teeth. And they did have the advantage of playing a man up for the entire second half, but despite controlling play for parts of the period, were certainly not as assured and confident as one would expect, even after Lorenzo Insigne put them two up in the 67th minute.In fact, Napoli nearly threw away all three points when Marco Reus, who had been suspect on many of his free-kick attempts the entire night finally forced Pepe Reina into a snap save shortly after Zúñiga’s error.
Yes, they were definitely outplayed by Arsenal, with new signing Mesut Özil grabbing his first Champions League goal and setting up another in a blitz attack by the Gunners that took the Italians by surprise, and following that, were really unable to impose themselves on the game for the remaining 75 minutes. Still, one has to keep in mind that this is a side that not only was in lowly Serie C less than ten years ago, but were a mid-table Serie A team as recently as a few seasons ago. More importantly, this is only their sophomore year–in their entire history–playing alongside some of Europe’s biggest clubs so it’s only to be expected that there will be some growing pains and hiccups along the way.
Against Dortmund, unlike their opponents, they showed precision and efficiency in their set-pieces, and were able to exploit gaps in the German side’s back-line through excellent runs by Higuaín and Insigne–something they will have to do against Ligue 1’s Marseille. But in the same vein, they showed their inexperience in competing on the continental stage time and time again against Arsenal, who struck early and took advantage of the lack of width and inability of the Serie A side to cope with the fast-tempo nature of their game. In fact, the Gunners, orchestrated by Mesut Özil, appeared to be having fun running at Napoli’s Miguel Britos and the aforementioned Zúñiga, who were quickly identified as the weaker elements in the team’s back-line–with half of their passes and the majority of attempts coming through the right-hand side. Hence, naturally, that is something that Benitez will have to keep in mind but again, as is commonly said, experience is the best teacher, and that is something that this promising side will certainly have more of in the near future.
Moreover, in comparison to their fellow Italian sides, one of which has won the trophy a massive seven times, only second to Real Madrid’s nine, the Partenopei’s performance over their first two fixtures has been highly encouraging. And just as they surprised many by getting out of their tough group during their debut Champions League appearance back in the 2011-2012 season, with Juventus and Milan currently facing an uphill battle in their respective groups, Napoli certainly looks increasingly likely to be Serie A’s only representative at the table of 16 in about two months from now.