Such is Napoli’s current upturn in fortunes, club captain Marek Hamsik believed the dominant 2-0 victory over rivals Roma at the weekend should have been a bigger margin, if not for missed opportunities: “It was a great performance, although we wasted many chances, we should have scored many more goals, but I am happy because the team is in a good period of form.”
How the mentality around the club has changed over the last couple of months. Two consecutive defeats at the start of the current campaign, not to mention failure to advance to the Champions League group stages had Coach Rafael Benitez squarely on the hot seat, with sacking a discussed possibility. The Partenopei, however, have since responded to the negativity by putting together an impressive run, which has seen the club lose just once in the last nine games in all competitions. In that span Napoli have picked up four wins in Serie A, which has the club firmly back in the hunt for the Champions League places, one point behind third and just four points off second, which Roma currently occupy.
Some of the plaudits must be given to Benitez for getting the best out of his players during a difficult period personally, where his job was on the line. The Spaniard has stuck to his 4-2-3-1 formation and gameplan, but has managed to inject confidence into a squad lacking some impetus at the beginning of the campaign. “The squad has more confidence now and understands that teamwork does pay off. If we play with this intensity then we will win many games,” Benitez commented after the Roma win.
The players also deserve a large slice of the accolades, especially the attacking foursome of Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne and the much maligned Gonzalo Higuain. The blistering, goalscoring form of Callejon has been a delight at the San Paolo, the 27-year-old has stormed through Serie A in his second season, with an incredible eight goals in 10 League games to lead the Capocannoniere charts so far.
Neapolitan Lorenzo Insigne has been injecting some passion back into his boyhood club with some dazzling performances recently. The 23-year-old has been keeping Dries Mertens on the sidelines with a string of impressive displays in his favoured winger role, which has been rewarded with a long term contract extension until 2019 and a rumoured return to the Italian national team later this month.
Perhaps no one player was synonymous with Napoli’s wretched start to the season than Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentina striker had a dismal World Cup, despite his country reaching the final. It seemed the former Real Madrid man brought his woes over to Naples, as his club form also suffered. Without a goal in the first seven rounds of the League campaign, Higuain burst into life with a hat-trick in the 6-2 demolition of Verona in Week 8 and has added two more over the next two matches, including a sublime overhead volley to put Napoli on track against Roma. Five goals in three games has signalled the return of Pipita to relevance.
The Azzurri have woken up from their slumber at the best possible time as the club faces two pivotal games in two very different competitions this week. The visit of Young Boys Bern in the Europa League on Thursday to the San Paolo is a chance for Napoli to gain a measure of revenge over the team that dispatched them with ease two weeks ago. A win would allow the Partenopei to take control of the group with winnable games away to Sparta Prague and a home game with Slovan Bratislava to round off the group stage.
A tricky trip to Florence beckons just three days later, with an underachieving Fiorentina only five points behind Napoli. La Viola suffered a similar slow start to their visitors but have yet to put together consistent displays, but nevertheless remain a rival to Napoli’s hopes of Champions League qualification.
It has been a remarkable transformation for Napoli after an ignominious start to the season. The Azzurri are surging up the table again and while Benitez has preached taking things ‘a game at a time’, continued victories and positive performances might just see Napoli return to relevance in the title race.