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.