With Marek Hamsik impressing at the start of the season, Alex Mott looks at how Rafa Benitez has got the best out of the Napoli ace.
“What is Marek Hamsik worth? Is Gareth Bale worth what Real Madrid paid for him? In this market if you say an outlandish figure then a club comes along and pays it. That is why I say Hamsik is priceless.”
In the summer transfer window rumours spread like wildfire. And during this off-season the rumour-mill was awash with reports that European giants were after Napoli’s Slovakian superstar – until Coach Rafael Benitez insisted to Sport Mediaset you couldn’t put a price on the 26-year-old’s genius.
After Edinson Cavani’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain, and Ezequiel Lavezzi’s the season before, the Three Tenors as they were known were down to just their Eastern European soloist. But the 2013-14 campaign has seen the forward start like never before. Four goals in his first four League matches have lifted the Partenopei to joint top of the table and a renewed sense of optimism at the Stadio San Paolo.
The South American duo may have gone on to pastures French, but with Neapolitan youngster Lorenzo Insigne and big-money signing Gonzalo Higuain seamlessly slipping into the front-line, Hamsik has a new attacking partnership to cause damage with.
Already one of the leaders of the team, the trequartista has taken on an even more prominent role since the Uruguayan left. His early season goals are testament to Benitez's assertion that he spend less time tracking back, helping his defensive teammates and more time contributing to Napoli’s attack.
And there’s one man the Spanish tactician sees in his Mohawk creator. "It's clear he's important to us, he makes room for the other offensive players,” he told reporters earlier this month. “Is Hamsik to Napoli the equivalent of Steven Gerrard to Liverpool? They are different, Hamsik doesn't have Gerrard's strength, but he does have more tactical intelligence. He is the strength of this team at this time.
“It was easy for me to decide who would be the captain, because Marek Hamsik is a talented player. He's a player who can make the difference and giving him such a responsibility could contribute to enhancing his self-esteem for the future.”
Not since the title-winning days of Diego Maradona have Napoli beaten Milan at San Siro and a German side in European competition. But thanks to the Slovakian, Benitez and a host of new names who have taken to life in Naples like ducks to water, those records have tumbled in the last week. 2-1 wins over the Rossoneri and Borussia Dortmund have got fans around the peninsula feverishly pondering if the Partenopei can genuinely challenge Juventus at home and the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich abroad.
Few would have expected Higuain, Jose Maria Callejon, Raul Albiol and Pepe Reina to come together so quickly with the stalwarts like Gokhan Inler and the former Brescia playmaker. And with Benitez’s switch from Walter Mazzarri’s three-man defence to a 4-2-3-1, that transition was made even harder. It can’t have been straight forward for anyone at the club – but so far, they have made it look exactly that.
Five games in and excitement is high in the southern city. And with games against Sassuolo and Genoa coming up this week, by Sunday Napoli could be out on their own at the top of the table – thanks, in large part, to Marek Hamsik.