Coppa Italia: Winners / Team rating: 8 / Top scorer: Higuain (17)
Europe: Champions League group stage, Europa League Round of 16
It started with a bang and finished with one, while in between Napoli knocked several nuts off the shy but also threw a few missed balls. Dave Taylor writes.
Welcome then to the fairground roller coaster of the Vesuviani’s intermediary year. “Having changed much of the squad, the Coach and playing system this was always going to be transitional season,” explained Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis recently.
This capricious campaign then really started last summer, when top scorer Edinson Cavani and Coach Walter Mazzarri left, with De Laurentiis hiring Coach Rafa Bentitez, knowing his club needed a new direction. “The fans always ask me for new players but the best investment a club can make is its Coach and we got Benitez,” he clarified.
It certainly seemed so, as under the Spaniard Napoli experienced their best ever start and peaked at various points with wins over rivals Roma, Juventus and Fiorentina, plus a 2-1 win over last year’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund, before ending with a thrilling fifth Italian Cup victory. All told, perhaps not all Napoli’s expectations were filled, but not too bad for a ‘transitional season’.
Benitez reshaped the team on his arrival, dumping Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 system and introducing his favoured 4-2-3-1. Yet one of his main problems was how to replace 29-goal striker Cavani. The experienced tactician felt the best way forward was to bring in not one but three exciting international forwards - Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens. It proved to be a positive choice as the trio scored 43 goals and managed 18 assists between them, with only Juve’s forwards scoring more. Yet, one thing he could not replace was the defensive contribution Cavani also brought to the team.
Other top-class arrivals over the summer included Spanish internationals, Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina and Real Madrid central defender Raul Albiol. “We are targeting players with a few years of experience to hit the ground running,” he explained at the time. After some hard work on the training ground, Napoli did indeed hit the ground running, zooming to the top of the table, after winning their first four games.
Yet in Week 5 Napoli dropped to third, following a 1-1 draw with rock-bottom Sassuolo in what would become a habit, as they consistently failed to finish off lower placed teams, struggling to synchronise solid defending with their go-ahead attacking capabilities.
Like last year Napoli were terrific in attack and stung sides on the break but a four man defence with previous wing-backs Christian Maggio/Giandomenico Mesto and Juan Zuniga/Pablo Armero as outright full-backs on the right and left respectively, failed to get to grips with the new set up.
In December Napoli were knocked out of the Champions League. Despite beating Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund at home plus Marseille twice, they became the first ever team to reach 12 points in the group stage and lose out on goal average.
What helped after that European exit was the 4-2 win over Inter in the next game. It was a vital victory after defeats by Juve and Parma, but a draw with Udinese saw them drop eight points behind Juve. December also witnessed an injury to captain and inspiration Marek Hamsik and sadly for him and Napoli he never really regained form, following his return in mid-January.
Going into the second half of the season and still third, the New Year started with a bang. In front of a season record attendance of 57,000, Napoli pushed themselves back into contention for the Scudetto by beating Sampdoria.
When the January transfer window opened, Rafa brought in his 12th new player, Brazilian midfielder Jorginho, who in his first start produced an assist in the 3-1 win over Milan. Benitez had used Gokhan Inler and Blerim Dzemaili as his ‘double-six’ pairing but with two points out of nine since the win over Verona, he inserted Jorginho in place of Dzemaili and things started to look up.
The other new arrivals included Brazilian right-back Henrique and left-back Faouzi Ghoulam, who also played admirably.
The side had a great run in the Coppa Italia, beating Atalanta and Lazio before reaching the final by turning over Roma 5-3 on aggregate in the semis. Yet they found it hard to continue this form in the following Europa League games, failing to score at Swansea or Porto. And although they beat Swansea at home they could only draw with a superior Porto side and it resulted once again in another European exit.
At this point the team started struggling again and with the two defeats to Parma and Fiorentina and a 1-1 draw with a struggling Udinese in Round 34, Napoli could no longer catch Roma in second place. However, secure in third place and following on from their top performance in the 3-1 win over Fiorentina in the Italian Cup Final, the Vesuviani finished the season very strongly, scoring 13 goals in the final three games.
The season overall saw Napoli often play well, but struggle to consistently close out matches like Roma and Juve did. Not that Rafa is unaware of the problems.
“We know we must strengthen particularly in defence and be strong and competitive in all matches next season,” he acknowledged. “It has certainly been positive but we could have done better but I am pleased to see the team play in a pro-active way after just one year of work.”
DeLa was also pleased and saluted Benitez for winning silverware in his first season. “I take my hat off to Rafa, as he is part of our organisation and will remain a part of it,” he insisted. “He is a great professional, an extraordinary Coach and with all the changes this team had it is very positive to win silverware and do very well in a difficult League. Coaching in Naples is not the same as working anywhere else, believe me.”
It certainly isn’t and although there is little doubt that Rafa is a fine tactician, as results against the top teams both home and away testifies, there were just too many silly slip-ups against weaker opposition.
As one of Europe’s most successful Coaches with Champions League, Europa League, UEFA Cup, FA Cup, Super Cups and La Liga wins behind him, Rafa has settled in well with Napoli. He has shown empathy with the city and its people while winning the ‘Panchina Giusta’ award for his fair play, sportsmanship and behaviour.
The Spanish 27-year-old right winger has been Napoli’s most consistent players all season, missing just one game. With his talent to offer both the tactical and passing discipline of the position it also sees him a potent threat when attacking, as 15 goals and six assists testify.
- The Partenopei won five and only lost one League game following their six Champions League matches.
- This season Napoli’s total expenditure was €104.6m on 14 players with €16.5m of this spent in the January transfer window.
- Compared to past Coaches’ points totals over the first 29 days of their tenure, Benitez comes out on top. Given that Walter Mazzarri began 2009-2010 on the eighth day it works out the same. With three points for victory Benitez has earned 58, Albert Bigon in 1989-90 with 57, Bruno Pesaola in 1965-66 with 53, Rino Marchese in 1980-81 with 52, Mazzarri with 52 and Ottavio Bianchi in 1985-86 on 50 follow.
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