2016-17 preview

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Gonzalo Higuain is gone, but Napoli have to move on and turn their investments into success again this season, writes Vincent Van Genechten.

Napoli must move on

Replicating their performance from the 2015-2016 season will be hard to do for Napoli. The Partenopei were contending for the Scudetto until Juventus beat them 1-0 in Turin and took over the lead from there. Napoli eventually finished second in what can be described as a wonderful campaign in the club’s 90-year history.

Two men played a key part: Gonzalo Higuain and Maurizio Sarri. The former is gone, the latter remains. But the fact that the player who scored a record 36 Serie A goals joined Juventus of all clubs will linger over the team’s performance all season.

Higuain’s sale, despite the fact that Napoli couldn’t do anything about it due to Juve paying the release clause, hit their fans big time. Many frustrations were directed to the player, but also to club President Aurelio De Laurentiis. If the Partenopei fail to deliver, especially early in the season, expect some hot scenes inside and outside the Stadio San Paolo. And when Higuain returns to Napoli, it will be a cauldron.

The current negative attitude towards this team is regrettable. Only 10 years ago, Napoli were in Serie B. At the moment, they are one of the best run clubs in Italy, behind only Juventus and maybe Sassuolo. Smart investments have taken them back to the top, competing in Serie A and Europe.

In fact, there are many reasons to be quite positive about the Little Donkeys. Apart from Higuain, every major player decided to stay at the San Paolo. From Marek Hamsik to Lorenzo Insigne, Allan, Jose Callejon, Jorginho, Elseid Hysaj and probably also Kalidou Koulibaly. That speaks volume about how these players value Napoli.

In addition, the club added quality players in every area. Lorenzo Tonelli bolsters the defence, Emanuele Giaccherini and Piotr Zielinksi in midfield, and Arkadiusz Milik in attack. So yes, Napoli lost their biggest weapon, but they have done a lot to cover for it, making the Partenopei a team to fight for Serie A’s top three places and one that should survive the Champions League group stage.

At the head of it all is still Sarri, the Coach that gave Napoli huge power with his 4-3-3 lineup, while installing a defensive structure that was absent under Rafa Benitez. The tactician learned a lot in his first season coaching a big club, making him ready to become an even better one in his second term at Napoli.

The Partenopei should be able to start fast. In their first 10 games of the season, only two should be problematic. Aside from home fixtures against Milan and Roma, they face Bologna, Chievo, and Empoli at home, plus Pescara, Palermo, Genoa, Atalanta, and Crotone on the road. And then comes an encounter with Juventus in Turin…

If Napoli are serious about contending for the Scudetto again and convincing their fans that the team is more than Higuain, they should head into the Juventus Stadium on a high. Starting a new season well has never been so important for the Little Donkeys.

Coach - Maurizio Sarri

What a first season at Napoli it was for Sarri. The former Empoli Coach started slowly, but his squad became very strong when he introduced a 4-3-3 line-up. Expectations are Sarri will hold on to his system, trying to work with Milik and Manolo Gabbiadini in the striker’s position.

Star player - Marek Hamsik

With Higuain at Juventus, there’s no doubt who Napoli’s best player is. Hamsik once again could have joined bigger teams and earned more money, but the Slovakian decided to extend his contract. He’s Napoli’s leader and one of the best in his position, where he’s primed to produce even more.

Best buy - Piotr Zielinski

Napoli’s biggest weakness last season was their lack of depth. They needed extra help in midfield to cover for Hamsik, Allan and Jorginho, and got exactly that in Zielinski. The 22-year-old Poland international impressed at Empoli on loan from Udinese and can play multiple positions. Great value transfer at just €15m.

Azzurri prospect - Jorginho

New Azzurri Coach Giampiero Ventura will be looking for a regista to give stability to Italy’s midfield. Jorginho could become the one that the former Torino Coach eventually picks. The 24-year-old has proven he’s capable of doing great things on the biggest stage, while improving greatly on the defensive end.

One who got away - Mauro Icardi

Receiving €90m for just one player opens up a couple of doors, especially for a team like Napoli. They invested a part of that sum in Arkadiusz Milik, but the Partenopei also wanted Mauro Icardi. However, despite some big sums reported, Inter were unwilling to sell their captain and best striker.

Probable line-up

Reina; Hysaj, Koulibaly, Albiol, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik; Callejon, MILIK, Insigne

Prediction – Champions League