Friday February 7 2014
‘Rafaluzione’ at a crossroads

Recent performances by Napoli have placed Rafa Benitez’s project at a crucial juncture, suggests Richard Thomas.

Wednesday night’s enthralling Coppa Italia semi-final first leg at the Stadio Olimpico proved two perhaps contradicting things about where Rafa Benitez’s Napoli tenure currently stands.

Firstly, the way in which the Azzurri reacted to going two goals down was the sign of a team clearly united behind their Coach. With the score at 2-0, they looked dead and buried going into the half-time interval but fought back admirably against an excellent Giallorossi side.

Gervinho’s late winner came against the overall balance of play and the eventual defeat should not mask what was a real show of defiance from Benitez and Napoli. The sort of defiance that was sadly lacking in last Sunday’s 3-0 reverse against Atalanta.

Secondly, however, it also highlighted the precarious nature of Napoli’s season. While they will get their opportunity to put things right in front of their home faithful in the return leg next week, failure to do so would represent another black mark against Benitez’s name and provide a further test of patience for club President Aurelio de Laurentiis, who wants to see some sort of return for the investment he poured into the club and the Coach last summer.

It is all so different to the heady early days of the season when the Partenopei won nine of their first 11 Serie A matches, a period which also included a highly impressive Champions League victory over last season’s beaten finalists Dortmund. The Campania side were riding the crest of a wave and Benitez, fresh from a Europa League win with Chelsea, was at the forefront of it. With new, high quality signings aplenty, an instantly strong relationship with the fans and a seemingly seamless transition from predecessor Walter Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 to his own tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 formation having taken place, the scene seemed set for a long and successful stay at the San Paolo for the Spanish tactician. Even with the plethora of new arrivals at the club, De Laurentis described Benitez as ‘the most important signing of the summer’.

The gulf in class however between Benitez’s new look side and defending champions Juventus was cruelly exposed in a 3-0 defeat at the Stadio Juventus on November 10 and the team have since tailed off badly in the race for the Scudetto. What’s more, they now have Vincenzo Montella’s Fiorentina breathing down their necks in what looks like being a two horse race for third place and Champions League qualification. They are also out of this season’s Champions League, though to be critical of their elimination when they took 12 points in a group also containing Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund would be harsh in the extreme.

There is no doubt though that the vultures are beginning to circle around Benitez, whose rigid tactics and rotation policy in particular have come in for fierce recent criticism, particularly after his decision to bench Gonzalo Higuain and Marek Hamsik for last weekend’s battering in Bergamo.

The Spaniard maintains that the team is ‘in the early stages of its development’ and that it is ‘not the be all and end all to win something this season’, and it is true that until recently he has had to deal without injured star player Hamsik for parts of the season. Unfortunately for him it is also true that there are minimum requirements he must surely meet if he is to extend his stay in Campania to a second year.

When the hour of reckoning comes for Benitez at the season’s end he will not be blamed for early Champions League elimination. Neither was it ever realistic to believe that he could overhaul Juve for the Scudetto in one season, despite his excellent start. He would also probably survive failure to win at least one of the Europa League and Coppa Italia, though a trophy would obviously help his cause. What would be completely unacceptable though would be failure to secure Champions League qualification, something that given the resources the Spaniard has at his disposal and the current shortcomings of both Milan teams would have been deemed unthinkable at the season’s outset.

Benitez must now use all of his experience to entice more performances similar to that of Wednesday night’s second half from his team, only this time with the right results. Otherwise, the ‘Rafaluzione’ may be over before it has even really started.

Keep up to date with the latest news and action from Spain's Primera Division with Football Espana - from the team behind Football Italia.

Have your say...
Why would I have to hope that? He makes choices that are absurd. They are poor decisions, which is what will lead to disappointment. Ride with him if you want, but he's not the guy. Maybe for a big team, like Madrid, his approach would be counter-balanced and they'd do well. For Napoli, he was a poor choice.
on the 14th February, 2014 at 3:21pm
We can hope Napoli fail because we don't like Benitez. 
on the 13th February, 2014 at 7:40pm

I'm saying that Napoli will miss the CL and that no good long-term plan exists when Benitez is your coach.

Napoli have a better squad than Roma...and they'll finish well behind Roma. You know why? Because Rafa is your manager.
on the 13th February, 2014 at 5:55pm
What are the Benitez haters saying now after his Napoli has wiped out Milan and Roma in the space of four days.
Articles and letters should be written based on fact instead of baseless opinion and controversy.
on the 12th February, 2014 at 9:31pm
Harry, instead of whining...well...that's it.
on the 10th February, 2014 at 1:17am
Stupid article followed by biased letters by those want to see Benitez fail. You can presume that Napoli might miss out on third, but they are third at the moment as well as in the Coppa Italia and Europa. There have been some disappointing results, but their season is no where near a failure.
on the 9th February, 2014 at 9:33pm
Anyone who thinks there's any justification in throwing out Cannavaro is, absolutely, an idiot. What is Benitez going to say? In practice, the others were more impressive? Cannavaro was not good enough? In GAMES Cannavaro has been terrific, for 5 years. The last 3 years he's stepped it up a tier. Benitez isn't concerned with anything that happens when he isn't there to see it. Cannavaro never got to the chance to fail in games. Benitez and his ways are more important than players...not good.
on the 9th February, 2014 at 8:15pm
Like at Liverpool, he buys a lot of players but isn't brave enough to make big buys. He made Higuain. Albiol and in particular Callejon are great moves. Even Mertens (tho there is Insigne, not to mention Pandev). It equates to quantity over quality, as a whole. Buys Jorginho but he's not on the EL squad? He's a number, who cannot fully flourish under Rafa. He does squad rotation because he thinks his tactics are more important than the players playing. Simply referencing Valencia is misguided.
on the 9th February, 2014 at 8:10pm
A massive overhaul and a lot of money spent, but if you're going to make those moves then you need a bit more quality. You need better than to change both the formation and the entire defense. You need better than to ship out guys who are in their primes and have been great, or the ones who have a lot of talent. Inler is world-class but he should be given more room to run back and forth. Instead, he plays alongside Behrami (eww) and Dzemali, which is not enough.
on the 9th February, 2014 at 8:05pm
Usual baloney from the Benitez bashers; they're not happy unless there's a crisis, real or imagined. The bloke's record speaks for itself doesn't it. Didn't you notice what he achieved at Chelsea last season - with the team playing much more expansive football than under Mourinho. Juventus and Roma are having exceptional seasons, so being 3rd is the best they can get right now. They're still in 2 cups and as everybody knows, they were just a bit unlucky to go out of CL. Get a grip moaners...
on the 8th February, 2014 at 10:14pm
If you look at the team against Roma there were 7 new faces to last season it would have been 8 if Mertens started so overall I think people are being very harsh. Mazzarri did a good job but he left an aging team so there was no choice but to refresh the team. Apart from the Atlanta and Parma games he has been doing a very good job.

I notice it is the kids on twitter from Canada and America who cry the most, patience we can see what mister is doing let us back the team and coach.

Forza Napoli
on the 8th February, 2014 at 2:33pm
Actually it is like a 424 for the simple reason being the 2 are the ones forcing each of he four to work harder and at times closer together. I think Inler and Behrami are questionable together and it ends up Albiol and Fernandez having to take greater responsibility.
The 4231 i think has a bit more room now with Jorginho and possibly Henrique or Behrami. For me, they still need a strong CDM and a forward to replace Higuain during these rotations. Rafa's job is to find a winning team.
on the 8th February, 2014 at 11:56am
Yes Dennis, the equation is:

EPL = Easy Premier League
Serie A = Worlds Toughest League

I have no issue with Benitez squad rotation, it worked well at Valencia, he won the league with 2 sets of teams. My issue is Benitez will only coach teams that have funds to splash, he would have been much happier at Spurs than Napoli...
on the 8th February, 2014 at 10:17am
Rafa is as obsessed with winning trophies as most clubs are with qualifying for CL. Rafa rotates for that reason and also for his team to come good from March onwards. @yogesh your facts are skewered in that 3pts for a win started in 94 in Italy and also the quality in football and teams now is so much lower than it used to be. Rafa might not have Ma Gi Ca but he did not have to face the Milan, Inter, Fiorentina, Parma, Lazio, Sampdoria, Genoa of bygone eras. @Moh easy EPL as in hard SerieA?
on the 8th February, 2014 at 12:55am
Benitez chooses 4-2-3-1 and squad rotation. There's nothing free-flowing or organic about his teams. You don't build anything long term when you hire him.
on the 7th February, 2014 at 11:26pm
Numero10 makes great points...tho I think he did some very good things with Inter. He was brought in to BSA. Scapegoat, with a change meant to drive them forward. Sneijder was never going to be a great player again after Mourinho left (further evidence that Mourinho isn't who people pretend he is).

Daniel also makes great points. His formation often looks like a 4-2-4. That's because he forces teams to play in that awful, generic formation (which he spawned onto the world ).
on the 7th February, 2014 at 11:22pm
DANIEL GIAMBRONE is pretty spot-on with his assessment.

Benitez seems to rotate just for the sake of it. I know he's trying to keep players fresh, but there's not much point being fresh in March when they are out of every competition.

He also makes some bizarre choices. Jorginho left out of the Europa squad?!

He's a decent manager, but far too stuck in his ways for me.

People say he won with Valencia, but you have to remember that was a brilliant team.

Elsewhere... he's been above average
on the 7th February, 2014 at 10:39pm
As long as he doesn't win a trophy, he fails. He was brought to win trophies, not to build the team.
on the 7th February, 2014 at 10:17pm
I would rate Benitez's performance at 70%! As the article states, rotation is the big issue here. Conte/Garcia do it when it's necessary whereas, with Benitez, he seems to do it just for the sake of it. When you have to incorporate many new faces, the worst thing that you can do is over rotate as this disrupts the teams rhythm. Another issue is the system: Napoli are top heavy, the 4231 often looks like a 424; which means that they struggle to control the middle of the park.
on the 7th February, 2014 at 4:48pm
Rafa is failing ?
what rubbish,i don't wanna get started so i will just present pure facts & numbers.

1)Bigon (89/90) 47 pts
2)Benitez (2013/14) 44 pts
3)Pesaola (65/66) 40 pts
4)Vinicius (73/74) and Marquis (80/81) 39 pts
6)Ranieri (91/92) 38 pts
7)Mazzarri (09/10) 35 pts
8)White (85/86) 34 pts
9)Boškov (94/95) 33 pts
10)Lippi (93/94) 32 pts

this is list of points in league after 22 matches, Rafa is in second position & bear in mind he doesn't have the legends of MA-GI-CA
on the 7th February, 2014 at 4:02pm
Part I - i can assure you that the so called vultures circling around Rafa are not at all Neapolitans & probably they don't even know about exact state of this Napoli. The project is going good, it would have been better if he hadn'y have soo many important first team players injured for so long & at the same time.. I can assure you Mazzari would have p****d in his pants had his Napoli got that Champions League group.
on the 7th February, 2014 at 3:53pm
Always won cups with teams other managers had constructed. I always think he makes a team worse with new additions until they don't work anymore. Seems to land all the good jobs lately for someone who lets his teams play not very watchable football. I believe he is overrated by a long way. Wasn't surprised when Inter sacked him.
on the 7th February, 2014 at 3:28pm
He couldn't win a league title in the Easy Premier League, what makes people think he can do it in Serie A. This guy is only good when it comes to spending money and when the funds have dried, he leave as he did with Valencia and Liverpool.
on the 7th February, 2014 at 2:41pm

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