What must seem like an especially long trudge for Napoli to the end of the season is winding down as she prepares for the Coppa Italia Final showdown with Fiorentina. For Rafael Benitez, whose position at the helm has remained relatively unquestioned since taking over, it will be the biggest test he has faced so far.
The bucket list of duties the Spaniard faced when assuming charge was well-documented - having to cope with the loss of Edinson Cavani while implementing a style of play befitting of a club playing in Europe amongst them. To date, he’s largely delivered amidst the swelling euphoria that accompanied his appointment, transforming the side into a modern team with an emphasis on the collective. But in many other ways, his Napoli have faltered.
Languishing 24 points behind leaders Juventus in Serie A would have been met with far greater scrutiny had it been anything other than a period of transition. Failure to find consistency in form and results during squad rotation has cost them valuable points. The team has alternated between the sublime and the ridiculous too often, blowing past opponents of stature via an irresistible display only to succumb to minnows after an abject performance the following week, conceding all manner of soft, avoidable goals.
Rafa has called for patience, appealing for reinforcements and the time to let his methods sink into the squad. Given the conditions, it’s a reasonable request. Napoli’s campaign has not been a bad one per se. Champions League football beckons next term. And he could clinch silverware in his first year before the weekend is out.
But the Coach is likewise aware of the need to deliver when opportunity beckons. That’s why seizing the Coppa Italia on Saturday is paramount to offering enough distraction away from a meek League attempt and aspects that need repair. In the final reckoning, losing the single most important game of the Partenopei’s season would significantly damage Benitez’s position.
The Cup specialist understands there won’t be many alibis to hide behind if they waver in the remaining 90 minutes that will define Napoli’s season. “If we don’t win the Final, then it can be a problem for the media and the fans,” the 54-year-old has admitted. On Monday, he expanded: “We hope to lift the Coppa because people’s evaluation of our season will depend on that Final at the Olimpico.” If he intends to plead the case of a glass half-full this season then they cannot slip up now.
To Benitez, success ahead means rectifying their mindset against the Viola: “When we don’t perform the way we should, the mentality of the players has to come out. They’ve got to understand that.” In a clash in which either team has the quality to outscore the other, that base intent could represent the fine line between victory and defeat.
“We can win, but we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll happen just because we are Napoli,” Benitez stressed. Hopefully, concentration levels against a side that could be missing some or all of Giuseppe Rossi, Juan Cuadrado, Borja Valero, Gonzalo Rodriguez and Neto can still remain at peak come kick-off. With Fiorentina as the perceived underdogs, the fixture is both the perfect opportunity and potentially the greatest double-edged sword.
In Napoli’s defence, they’ve managed to exploit the tension and create the perfect storm in high-stakes games for the most part. Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and Roma in the Coppa semi-finals are some of the scalps the San Paolo outfit have claimed when playing to potential and dispensing with the simple lapses that have plagued them otherwise.
Given Gonzalo Higuain, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon form one of Italy’s most fearsome forward lines, there ought to be enough in their tank to overcome Vincenzo Montella’s men. The final is also the perfect occasion for Marek Hamsik to shake his recent hoodoo and put in a real captain’s performance. With their star man at his best, everything can feel like it is within Napoli’s reach again.
Coppa victory will be key to buffering the ambitious club over to the new season, which they can then start from a position of strength. The first trophy of Benitez’s reign, combined with mercato action in the summer, may just be enough to give Napoli the necessary jump-start to finally embark on the winning her fans crave.
Lose inexplicably though, and the debate surrounding Benitez’s tenure could become almost unbearable.
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