After a perfect start in all competitions, Rafa Benitez's side look good early on to mount a title challenge, argues Frank Tigani.
Some understandably had doubts when Edinson Cavani was sold to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer. Napoli captain Paolo Cannavaro warned “replacing him will not be easy.” Former Napoli player Antonio Careca, who played during the glory days of the late 80s and early 90s, believed “they should not have let him go. They will lose 70 per cent of their strength.” A month into the new season however, and Napoli arguably look stronger without him.
Three wins from three in Serie A and victory in their Champions League opener against Borussia Dortmund and it has been a perfect start to life post-Cavani. Speaking after his side’s win against the Germans, new boss Rafael Benitez was understandably delighted while trying to temper rising expectations. “Tonight against the European vice-champions I have to be satisfied and positive, but we have to control the enthusiasm of the fans, though we’ll enjoy it for tonight and then get back to work tomorrow.”
Cavani may have gone, but the goals have continued to flow. In their four games played so far Napoli have netted 11 times already. Marek Hamsik alone has scored four of those. New arrivals Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Maria Callejon – both hitting the ground running following their arrival from Real Madrid – have accounted for five. Local favourite Lorenzo Insigne has been repaying the faith Benitez has shown in him with some promising displays and, of course, with his superb winner against Dortmund.
In the past, Benitez’s sides have always been known for being rather defensive-minded, but this does not appear to be the case with Napoli. While the former Liverpool boss has introduced his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, he has not abandoned the entertaining football that characterised the Walter Mazzarri years and it is paying off. Napoli lead Serie A in goals scored, have the highest average possession and have recorded the most shots per game. It is all very ‘un-Benitez’ like, but there is a good reason for this.
If Napoli have a weakness, it is in defence. In recognising this, Benitez seems to have decided to play to the team’s strengths and it’s working rather well. There is more to come, as he has warned “I am sure in one or two months we will be even better.” No doubt. This is, after all, a side that experienced a number of changes in personnel over the summer, so the players and Coach are still getting to know each other. This makes their victory over Dortmund – a side that has been together for years – all the more remarkable.
Yet at the same time it should not be all that surprising that Benitez has got his team performing at such a high level so early on his tenure. Indeed, many of his greatest successes have come early on during his reign. In his first season with Valencia back in 2001-02, he won La Liga. When he moved to Liverpool in 2004, he won the Champions League 10 months later. Even at Inter, where he was regarded as a failure and lasted only six months, he still managed to collect two titles – the Italian Super Cup and the World Club Cup. It was the same story last season at Chelsea. He was only there for eight months, but he left with a Europa League crown to his name.
Benitez has won titles at every one of his last four clubs, though many of them have come in his first season in charge. His past successes are the reason why Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis hailed his arrival as “the best signing of the summer.” The hope is that he can continue delivering titles and the early signs are certainly encouraging.