Coppa Italia: Winners / Team rating: [7/10] / Top scorer: Arkadiusz Milik (10) / Europe: Champions League R16
Napoli strayed too far from their identity under Carlo Ancelotti, a mutiny tore the club apart and Gennaro Gattuso steered the ship to a Coppa Italia triumph, writes Ciro Di Brita.
The Azzurri began the season with the idea of going one step further than the previous campaign and lifting their first Scudetto in 30 years. With a highly-decorated Coach on the bench in the shape of Carlo Ancelotti - who had guided his side to a second-place finish and a good but ultimately unlucky Champions League campaign – things looked rosy for some sections of the stands. In addition, the club had just smashed their record transfer fee when they paid €42m for Hirving Lozano from PSV Eindhoven and were able to hold onto prized assets like Brazilian midfielder Allan and defender Kalidou Koulibaly.
However, those who scraped the surface and took a closer look at the squad found a team missing several vital components, most notably a playmaker and a striker. The club had chased a No 10 in the guise of James Rodriguez for most of the summer and during pre-season had set up their formation and playing style in friendlies to accommodate a player with those characteristics. Alas, the Colombian never arrived, nor did Mauro Icardi, who again was the source of a protracted transfer saga following President Aurelio De Laurentiis’ attempts to sign the Argentine hitman the year before.
The Ciucciarelli went into the season short on numbers in midfield, left-back and up front, however, the cracks were at the back. Despite bringing in Kostas Manolas and Giovanni Di Lorenzo for a combined €45.5m, they conceded seven goals in their opening two matches. The problems in defence were quickly dismissed as a blip by some pundits and if Napoli kept outscoring their opponents, then a leaky backline did not really matter.
Regrettably for Ancelotti and Napoli fans, the goals soon dried up and in the Autumn a run of nine draws and two losses in 13 matches ended any hopes of a title challenge.
With complaints coming from the players about their training regime being too slack, something that had been pointed at Ancelotti when he was at Bayern Munich, and general unhappiness with contracts running out, feeling they deserved more money or wanting the team to be strengthened, a rift developed in the dressing room between players and the club.
Which of course ultimately culminated in the infamous Mutiny after the Champions League game with RB Salzburg. In the days before the tie with the Austrians, Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis hoped to end a three-game winless run and air of lethargy by putting the team into a training retreat, albeit a non-punitive one, as he put it.
Ancelotti went against the President and this plan in the press, stating he did not think it a good idea, and as soon as the final whistle went on a 1-1 draw, things went awry in the dressing room. The squad refused to go back into the training camp and Ancelotti skipped mandatory post-match interviews. Massive fines were issued to the ringleaders of the mutiny and it seemed like Napoli’s season was over there and then.
After the dust had settled, Ancelotti for some reason kept his trust in players that had clearly downed tools and were just going through the motions, hoping perhaps that they could just play themselves back into form. Sadly, the problems were worse than just being out of form, the side that was assembled in the off season lacked any cutting edge, had extraordinarily little pace, had no guile or creativity. In essence Ancelotti had taken a well-oiled machine built by Maurizio Sarri that could play a certain style in their sleep and instead of keeping with that philosophy of possession-based football, went for a rudimentary 4-4-2 that went direct to the small man up field on far too many occasions.
The former Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Paris Saint-Germain man’s job was untenable and after he secured the Azzurri’s passage into the knockout rounds of the Champions League with a 4-0 home win over Genk, he was let go that very night. Ancelotti was replaced by his former midfield general, as Gennaro Gattuso who was entrusted with the job of righting the sinking ship. Nevertheless, things did not automatically go right for Ringhio, as he lost four of his opening five league matches in the dugout at the San Paolo.
A 1-0 win at home over Lazio in the Coppa Italia proved to be the turning point for Gattuso’s men, as the signings of Diego Demme and Stanislav Lobotka in the January window brought some sort of stability to the side, meaning the Partenopei could build from the back and try get back to a possession-based game. That victory was quickly followed up by a memorable 2-1 home win over Juventus.
An impressive 1-1 draw at home against Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16 was the highlight in February before Inter were then beaten in the Coppa semi-final first leg at San Siro. The outbreak of the Coronavirus put a halt on proceedings.
During lockdown, the Napoli players worked hard on their fitness levels with the goal to win the Coppa Italia, go as far as they could in the Champions League and to maybe keep their top four ambitions alive.
Gattuso’s men proved tough to break down on their way to lifting the Coppa Italia after beating Juventus on penalties. They won their first two league games after the restart, but suffered a 2-0 defeat to Atalanta which put to bed to any aspirations of playing in next season’s Champions League.
Coaches - Carlo Ancelotti/ Gennaro Gattuso
When Carlo Ancelotti replaced Maurizio Sarri in the Napoli hotseat, some people thought that that move would be the catalyst for the Azzurri to take the next step and finally win their first Scudetto since 1990. Unfortunately, things did not work out that way for the Reggiolo-born veteran, whose time at the Stadio San Paolo came to an abrupt end after his side dropped down to seventh amid a crisis of in-fighting and mutiny. Gattuso replaced his former Coach and led the Partenopei to their first piece of silverware in six years. However, the World Cup winner’s new side fell as low as 13th before a turnaround in fortunes halted their slide down the Serie A standings, which saw them finish in seventh place.
Player of the Year – Giovanni Di Lorenzo
In the early portion of the season when Ancelotti was still in charge, it was new signing Giovanni Di Lorenzo who stood out as Napoli’s best performer. The right-back was bought from Empoli in the summer for €9.5m and excelled in several positions including centre-back, left-back and even a stint at right wing. The 26-year-old’s form tailed off in the weeks towards the end of the season, although that could have been due to fatigue. In the latter part of the campaign it was big Serbian defender Nikola Maksimovic who impressed the most since Gattuso took over.
Highlight – Coppa glory at last
King of the cups Carlo Ancelotti did provide the biggest highlight in the first half of the season when he oversaw the Azzurri’s 2-0 win over holders Liverpool in the Champions League group stage. A 4-3 thriller at RB Salzburg also in the Champions League was a memorable moment for Napoli fans. However, the biggest and brightest highlight of the season came when the Partenopei lifted the Coppa Italia after they defeated old foes Juventus on penalties in the Final, their first silverware since 2014.
Nightmare – Mutiny in the dressing room
The now infamous mutiny that came after a 1-1 draw against RB Salzburg in the Champions League in November. The Azzurri had gone three games without a win before the midweek European tie and President Aurelio De Laurentiis had stated he wanted his side to go into a training retreat until the following Sunday morning. Coach Ancelotti had told the press in the build-up to the game that he was against the idea of going, but he would abide by the decisions made by the club. Sadly, that chink in the amour gave the players enough leeway to refuse to head back to the training camp after the match and from there all hell broke loose. Angry words, players and vice presidents reportedly having to be physically separated and huge fines being issued in the fall out.
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