When Napoli were drawn as the final team in Group G, they were the final piece in the jigsaw of the so called ‘group of death’ in this season’s Champions League. The small matter of last year’s beaten finalists Borussia Dortmund, 2006 runners up Arsenal and the 1992/1993 winners Marseille line up to form a formidable group.
Napoli face a tough Champions League campaign but have just come off the back of an impressive 2-1 home win against Dortmund which included a goal from new big money signing Gonzalo Higuaín.
After losing star man Edinson Cavani this summer as well as Ezequiel Lavezzi a year earlier, the fans must have feared the team might stagnate after finishing a club record second in Serie A last term.
In the summer came a big blow; the man who had nurtured and built this team into a potent unit couldn’t resist the lure of the San Siro and Inter Milan.
Walter Mazzari saw his chance for a new challenge and took it. Inter are a club that totally eclipses Napoli in terms on honours and their glittering history, but are a club that needed a serious overhaul after previous coach Andrea Stramaccioni only managed a feeble 9th place finish. Mazzari was a symbol of stability in his four years in Naples, and before this he guided his Sampdoria side which included Antonio Cassano to sixth place and a Coppa Italia Final in two years.
It was vitally important amidst the Edinson Cavani transfer saga that Aurelio De Laurentiis acquired a manager that could pick off where the Italian left off and Rafael Benitez was an inspired decision. This appointment also meant he was the first foreign manager to manage Napoli since 2000.
Benitez’s last job in Italy was ironically at Inter, but didn’t turn out as planned. Benitez inherited a team that had won the treble including a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. However after the FIFA Club World Cup win at the end of 2010, Benitez set an ultimatum; – invest in the squad or fire me. It was thought the ex-Liverpool boss doubted his side’s powers and the future of ageing stars such as Diego Milito, Dejan Stanković and Esteban Cambiasso.
However, President Massimo Morrati was less than convinced after overseeing his clubs greatest season in history only a year previous and duly sacked the Spaniard after six months in charge. This wasn’t the first time Benitez went to war with his clubs hierachy over new signings – after winning the La Liga and UEFA Cup double in 2004 with Valencia he fell out with director of football Jesús García Pitarch and famously said “I was hoping for a sofa [a defender] and they’ve brought me a lamp (Fabián Canobbio)”
If there were any doubts from the Partenopei fans, they should be eradicated after their sides impressive start to the season. Napoli currently sit joint top of Serie A with a maximum 12 points from four games with their most notable victory coming over AC Milan last weekend, where Benitez guided his new team to a 2-1 triumph with new signing Gonzalo Higuain netting his third goal in four Serie A appearances. On loan goalkeeper Pepe Reina described his penalty save from Mario Balotelli as the most important of his career. Not to forget, this win came after a midweek success over Borrussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
Napoli couldn’t have asked for a harder initiation to Europe’s elite competition, having been drawn against Arsenal, Marseille and Dortmund all of whom have illustrious history in this tournament. However, with Benitez having been allowed to reinvest heavily in his squad after finally selling star striker Edinson Cavani to PSG for €64 million (usurping Radamel Falcao’s move to Monaco as the most expensive signing in french football and showing the huge blanket of money men now tucked up in world football) it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Napoli have sold a player to buy a team. Notable summer arrivals at Napoli included Dries Mertens,Pablo Armero, Pepe Reina, José Callejón, Raúl Albiol and the aforementioned Higuaín.
Napoli now have a man in charge who has a wealth of experience around Europe and has the proven track record to go with it, an honours list including the Champions League, UEFA Cup, two La Liga titles and an FA Cup to mention a few, was topped off by steering a Chelsea side lacking constancy to a Europa League victory despite an initial fiery welcome from the West Londoners fans.
Mazzari’s second place will have to at least be repeated by Benitez if Napoli are going to announce themselves as a genuine title contender year after year, however with a dominant Juventus still favourites, it is the Champions League where I can see the newcomers making significant strides.
Steering his side out of the group stages would be praised ubiquitously, but the club’s Champions League naivety combined with Rafael Benitez’s tactical nous could guide them into the latter stages, surprising many along the way.