Group Stage Fan Preview: Napoli

SSC Napoli enter the season coming off an encouraging market.  It’s not that the club
made so many pivotal acquisitions over the summer – they managed to retain their
best players.  What may seem trivial is a monumental step toward the success of
Napoli, who have historically had a tough time of keeping their stars.  Even in recent
seasons, the club has seen standouts such as Gonzalo Higuaín, Edison Cavani, and
Ezequiel Lavezzi depart the club.  This bodes well for Napoli as it is a testament to
the success of manager Maurizio Sarri, who has constructed a project worth sticking

Over the summer, Napoli added talented young winger Adam Ounas from Bordeaux
and utility fullback Mário Rui from Roma, on a loan with obligation to buy in July
2018.  The club also paid out on clauses to make Nikola Maksimović and Marko Rog
permanent transfers, and signed Roberto Inglese from Chievo Verona on the last day
of the transfer window, immediately loaning him back to the Veneto based club.
The most notable departures are Duván Zapata and Ivan Strinić to Sampdoria, and
Leonardo Pavoletti to Cagliari.

All things considered, Napoli have a lot to be encouraged about following the
transfer window.  Ounas is a smart purchase for the future and should provide
healthy competition for veteran winger Jose Callejón, and Rui was necessary for
depth.  While Juventus remain title favorites for Serie A, it is Napoli who seem the
likeliest of contenders to topple the Bianconeri’s domination.

However, Napoli missed their chance to drastically upgrade their squad by purchasing a new
goalkeeper.  Once again, Napoli enter the season with the mercurial Pepe Reina, who
seemed to be growing disillusioned at the club.  Additionally, Reina is prone to
errors – while he has shown his worth from time to time, fans have grown frustrated
with his intermittent mistakes.  Reina’s contract expires in summer 2018, and with
Napoli unlikely to renew, they must pursue a replacement goalkeeper sooner rather
than later.

Perhaps the only other position in need of upgrading is center back.  26-year- old
Kalidou Koulibaly has been consistently excellent for Napoli, but the club has failed
to find the right partner for him to steady the defense.  Other options include the
aging Raúl Albion, Vlad Chiriches, Lorenzo Tonelli, and Nikola Maksimović.  Sarri
would be wise to grant more chances to Maksimović in particular, who struggled to
adapt at the club last season but showed his class while at Torino.  Other than
goalkeeper and another consistent center back, Napoli’s defensive options are
outstanding; Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj are some of the most talented
fullbacks in the league.

Sarri, entering his third season with Napoli, has excited fans and neutrals alike with
his innovative, attacking-oriented playing style.  This is marked by minimal
dribbling in the first two phases, rapid but short passing, and calculated buildup
through the middle.  Movements are orchestrated with great precision and are particularly lethal toward the left side, where Ghoulam, Marek Hamšík, and Lorenzo
Insigne combine to devastating effect.  Napoli are fortunate to have one of the best
midfield depths in the world; Hamšík, Jorginho, Piotr Zielinski, Amadou Diawara,
Allan, and Rog are all capable of producing breathtaking football.  In particular, this
season will be a memorable one for longstanding captain and Hamšík, who enters
the campaign just three goals shy of Diego Maradona’s club record.  Hamšík is
arguably the best midfielder in Italy and this could be his best chance yet to add to
his legacy and win a scudetto.

Prior to the 2016-17 campaign, many wondered how Napoli would fare without
Higuaín, who was the club’s top scorer by some distance.  When Arkadiusz Milik
(then a new signing) tore his ACL last October, Napoli had a brand new crisis to
worry about.  What followed was an almost indescribable rise from Dries Mertens,
who had barely played as a lone central forward during his time at the club.
Mertens scored 34 goals in all competitions last season, linking up with the electric
Insigne and industrious Callejón to form one of the most devastating trios in
football.  Now that Milik has fully recovered, Sarri seems content to rotate him with
Mertens depending on the match.  Napoli enter the Champions League group stages
with tremendous depth in nearly every position.

Napoli were drawn to Group F in the Champions League along with Feyenoord
(Netherlands), Manchester City (England), and Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine).
Naturally, the most exciting match on the horizon is Napoli vs Pep Guardiola’s
Manchester City.  Sarri and Guardiola are two of the most tactically innovative
coaches in the world, and the prospect of their squads meeting is thrilling even for
most neutrals.  On paper, Napoli should not have great difficulty with Feyenoord or
Shakhtar, but the matches against Manchester City should be a sight to behold.  The
matches could go either way, but with Guardiola currently struggling to implement
his system at Manchester City, the October match at the Etihad Stadium in
Manchester could prove to be crucial in Napoli’s bid to finish atop their group.

Expect Napoli to improve on last season’s 3rd place finish in Serie A, and their exit in
the Round of 16 in the Champions League at the hands of eventual winners Real
Madrid.  Sarri, who has been called Napoli’s most important factor by legendary
manager Arrigo Sacchi, will be keen to prove that his tactical style is as functional in
winning silverware as it is aesthetic.  Provided Reina steps up his performances and
Napoli figure out the missing piece to the puzzle at center back, a scudetto and
Champions League campaign lasting to the late stages are not unrealistic
expectations.  There’s a footballing eclipse in Campania threatening to block out the
rest, make sure you are around to witness it.

By: @Ilsarrista

Photo: Getty