If Napoli was a municipal garden it would be late Autumn and its plants would be preparing for winter and getting ready to blossom in glorious harmony in Spring. However, this season without the backing of the council, in this case owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, gardener Rafa Benitez has not been able to transplant older, more experienced plants into the garden that were needed to help it flourish as it should.
Napoli’s reseeding last summer saw the arrival of several exotic species, yet this summer’s transplants have been defiantly underwhelming. Napoli fans are consequently unhappy and De Laurentiis was forced to defend his lack of spending.
“I’ve heard many things these days, but what I want to express is the total confidence in this team,” he emphasised. “In football you have to have balance, there is no mathematical formula to win, but often by overdoing it, it threatens to ruin everything.”
Whether fans go along with that reasoning after suffering the Champions League exit and the narrow win over Genoa is debatable. For them the bottom line is that several obvious holes have still not been filled to their satisfaction. It seems Napoli tried but moves for top players like Javier Mascherano, Maxime Gonalons, Cristoph Kramer and Mario Suarez all fell through for one reason or another.
Yet notwithstanding the overall state of affairs, there have been four newcomers who do look promising and could add to the overall strength of the club.
The first is Kalidou Koulibaly - a big, solid French-born central defender from Belgian outfit Genk, who despite his size has amazing pace and has also played as a winger and right-back. It was thought he was back-up to Raul Albiol and Federico Fernandez but surprisingly the Argentina international, who was one of the most consistent players in the second half of last season, was sold. Fortunately Koulibaly seems to have settled in immediately and the 23-year-old, who cost Napoli €7m, could prove a very useful seedling.
Next came Spanish utility striker/midfielder Michu, who has looked steady if not spectacular in pre-season. However, he does have the experience and the attitude to be a fine deputy for either striker Gonzalo Higuain or midfielder Marek Hamsik or even a striker in his own right. Two years ago arriving in the Premier League aged 26 he was a sensation with Swansea, scoring 18 times in 35 league games. Sadly his second season was beset with injuries but for the relatively low loan fee of €1m over the season, he could just prove to be a solid import.
Another former Swansea player replanted in Napoli is Jonathan de Guzman, a graduate from Feyenoord who after spells with Mallorca and Villarreal spent a solid two years on loan at Swansea. It was with the Welsh outfit that Napoli scouted him, and this summer paid Villarreal a highly reasonable €6m for the 13-cap Dutch international.
The 26-year-old is versatile and can play as an attacking midfielder, central midfielder or on either wing. Perhaps his best position in Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 would be as one of the twin pivots - not as the defensive piece, perhaps more in the Jorginho role - and as he showed against Genoa he also knows where the goal is.
In spite of these arrivals, the lack of a top class defensive midfielder was worrying. Then at the last moment in came David Lopez and, although no panic buy, he was just not first choice.
Benitez is aware of his integrity and style in the Espanyol side last season and the Spaniard will look to take over the role that was vacated by Valon Behrami. He is one to break up play, is tough in the tackle and, able to also hold on to the ball, at €5m he could prove to be the ideal replacement.
Yet despite these arrivals overall the feeling amongst many Napoli fans is of lost opportunity. It seems to many that the team has not progressed from last season. But perhaps the new boys are the seedlings that could blossom into real stars Rafa’s garden, only time will tell.