Coppa Italia: Semi-finals / Team rating: 7 / Top scorer: Higuain (18)
Europe: Champions League Play-offs, Europa League semi-finals
A turbulent campaign characterised by near-misses ended on a sour note for a Napoli squad now facing an uncertain future, writes David Lee Wheatley.
The Versuviani spent an expectant summer hoping to improve upon their third spot of the previous season, while perhaps getting closer to knocking Juventus off their perch at the top of Serie A.
Michu and Jonathan de Guzman were drafted in from the Premier League, while Espanyol’s David Lopez and Kalidou Koulibaly of Genk were also signed up to bolster the squad, as the Partenopei prepared to defend the Coppa Italia and mount a serious Scudetto challenge.
The season began with defeat at the hands of Athletic Bilbao in a Champions League Play-off round prior to the main draw. Matters briefly improved, though, with a 2-1 victory away to Genoa in their opening Serie A fixture, with new boy De Guzman notching a late winner.
Consecutive defeats to Chievo and Udinese were suffered in September, followed by a draw with Palermo. Mercifully, a second win arrived at Sassuolo courtesy of Jose Callejon’s third goal in five League matches to bring about an upturn in fortunes. Napoli didn’t taste the bitter pill of defeat again in Serie A until mid-December.
Stand-out victories from an 11-match unbeaten League run included a 6-2 thrashing of Verona, during which deadly marksman Gonzalo Higuain plundered a hat-trick, and further wins over potential top-three rivals Roma and Fiorentina. The impressive run left the Neapolitan outfit sitting in third spot, but trailing leaders Juventus by 11 points.
An away loss to Milan halted the juggernaut in its tracks, before heading off to Qatar for an Italian Super Cup clash with Juventus. Doubles from Carlos Tevez and Higuain, one each within the first 68 minutes and one apiece in extra-time, ensured a penalty shoot-out would be required to decide the victor. Ten of the first 12 penalties were successfully dispatched, but only Koulibaly could find the net from the following six efforts to hand Napoli the trophy.
Shortly after the winter break came another pivotal clash with the Bianconeri, only 20 days after they’d met in the Middle East. It seemed Napoli’s big chance to gain ground on the leaders and put themselves in the frame for a title charge - but they blew it.
Juve won comfortably, condemning Napoli to a first San Paolo defeat against their Turin rivals in 15 years. To their credit, Napoli then lost just once - against Palermo - in 10 matches across all competitions taking them through to the Italian Cup semi-final stage and the Europa League Last 16.
Furious speculation surrounding the future of Rafa Benitez began to swirl when unwelcome news of an apparent stalemate regarding contract talks emerged. President Aurelio De Laurentiis reportedly offered the Spanish tactician a new deal to stay on, only for the Coach to express a desire to leave it on the table until April before making a decision.
Patchy form returned in March, as Benitez’s men lost to Torino and Verona, and could only draw with Atalanta and Inter. The beginning of April was no better, with the club’s attempts to claim a top-three place taking a further battering and their Italian Cup odyssey coming to a halt at the hands of Roman duo Roma and Lazio respectively. Still, Dinamo Moscow were brushed aside in Europe, as Napoli made it to the quarter-finals of a competition they’d last won in 1989 when under the UEFA Cup guise.
De Laurentiis had seen enough, though, and promptly enforced a period of ‘ritiro’ upon the players and staff, where they were all be held within the confines of a training camp until such time as the disgruntled owner saw fit to let them out.
We cannot be sure whether the camp itself worked, but a five-match sequence without a Serie A victory was turned around dramatically with successive wins over Fiorentina, Cagliari and Sampdoria. The Versuviani hit 10 goals and let in just two during those three contests, and the ‘ritiro’ was ended after almost a fortnight.
Slovakian attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik was at his sublime best during that period, summed up perfectly by his showing in Germany against Wolfsburg. The Azzurri picked off their fancied opponents at will in a resounding 4-1 triumph, running roughshod over the beleaguered Wolves. That was accompanied by a 2-2 draw in the second leg, which saw them safely through. Predictably, there followed a shock 4-2 reverse away to Empoli to dampen the enthusiasm.
Unheralded semi-finalists Dnipro were next up and a frustrating opening leg saw Napoli fluff a host of chances during a 1-1 draw, with Higuain cast as the guilty party. They travelled to Kiev knowing they had to score, but were again wasteful against a rather ordinary, but hard working, outfit. Alas, Yevhen Seleznyov’s header proved the difference, as the Italians were sent tumbling out.
As conjecture over Benitez’s plans reached fever pitch, his side was again seen off by runaway League champions Juventus. With third-placed Lazio losing to derby foes Roma, it meant Napoli were headed for a final-day home showdown with the Aquile to ensure Champions League qualification.
On the eve of the winner-takes-all tussle, it was finally confirmed that Benitez would be leaving the club. His last task was to ensure third place, with the Partenopei required to repeat a narrow victory gained at the Stadio Olimpico back in January to make the preliminary stages of the Champions League at Lazio’s expense.
Both sides ended the game with 10-men in a frantic encounter, as the visitors burst into a two-goal lead by half-time. A seemingly rejuvenated Napoli fought back through a Higuain brace after the break, with the Argentine moving on to 18 Serie A strikes.
Then, the moment of truth arrived when marauding wing-back Christian Maggio was felled by Senad Lulic in the box. Up stepped Higuain, but he fired over from 12 yards to take his poor spot-kick record to four misses from seven attempts. His blunder breathed new life into the Biancocelesti, as they struck twice more to solidify their grip on third. Napoli, meanwhile, dropped to a disappointing fifth behind Fiorentina to leave behind an overriding feeling of regret hanging over the campaign.
Often criticised for a perceived defensive approach, the Spaniard’s side scored the third-highest number of Serie A goals and conceded most within the top 10 positions. His rotational system was perhaps used too widely, but he brought the best out of the players at his disposal on a number of occasions.
The Argentine hitman proved Napoli’s major goal threat throughout the campaign, ending as the club’s top scorer on 28 goals in all competitions and with the joint-second highest number of assists to his name. He was also the player most willing to shoot at goal, averaging 3.1 efforts per game.
- Rafa Benitez ended his two-year spell in charge at the San Paolo with an overall 57 per cent win rate.
- Marek Hamsik moved into fourth spot above Ciro Ferrara in the club’s all-time appearance-makers list during the campaign.
- Napoli scored 14 of their 70 Serie A goals from set-pieces this term.
|33||D||Raul Albiol||34 (1)||-||1|
|31||D||Faouzi Ghoulam||20 (1)||-||2|
|5||D||Miguel Britos||17 (2)||1||-|
|16||D||Giandomenico Mesto||3 (4)||-||-|
|96||D||Sebastiano Luperto||0 (1)||-||-|
|17||M||Marek Hamsik||28 (7)||7||10|
|19||M||David Lopez||29 (3)||1||1|
|14||M||Dries Mertens||17 (14)||6||7|
|77||M||Walter Gargano||17 (7)||-||1|
|6||M||Jonathan de Guzman||12 (11)||3||1|
|24||M||Lorenzo Insigne||13 (7)||2||3|
|88||M||Gokhan Inler||16 (3)||1||-|
|18||M||Juan Zuniga||6 (1)||-||2|
|22||M||Josip Radosevic||0 (1)||-||-|
|7||A||Jose Callejon||33 (5)||11||3|
|9||A||Gonzalo Higuain||31 (6)||18||7|
|91||A||Duvan Zapata||6 (15)||6||1|
|23||A||Manolo Gabbiadini||8 (12)||8||1|