It’s been a long time since Napoli was classified as Serie A title contenders. Not since Maradona pulled on the light blue jersey has the Napoli faithful believed it has a shot at glory. But now, under the guidance of Spanish coach Rafa Benetiz, Napoli is starting to look like a genuine threat to Juventus crown. A mile away from the financial troubled club of the late nineties, Napoli now have significant muscle behind them and are making a strong play for the title this season with some bold moves in the transfer market.
After arriving from Chelsea during the summer, Benetiz wasted little time strengthening the existing squad he had with several key arrivals joining the club. One of his first moves was to secure Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina on loan from Liverpool as replacement for the departing Morgan De Sanctis. The two worked closely during Benetiz’s time in charge at Anfield and the move made a lot of sense to both parties, with Napoli short of options between the sticks and Reina now backup at Liverpool to new signing Simon Mignolet. To support Reina, Benetiz also drafted in accomplished centre half Raul Albiol from Real Madrid to tighten a somewhat suspect defense. Albiol is one of three players to arrive at Napoli during the summer with winger Jose Maria Callejon and Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain also making the move. Higuain was seen as something of a coup for the club, who fought of Premiership interest from Arsenal and Chelsea to sign the powerful striker. At a cost of £32.5million, the 25 year old is not a cheap buy but with cash in the bank from the sale of Edinson Cavani to PSG for just under £57million, Higuain could prove to be one of the buys of the season. Having hit four goals in his first six appearances for the club, the fans now have a new hero that they can shout about from the terraces.
With the new pieces added to his puzzle, Benetiz now has a squad that look like title challengers on paper but whether they can pull together a run to the title has yet to be seen. The atmosphere around the ground is extremely positive with reports from the training ground suggesting that the new players have gelled into the squad quickly and with little disruption. On the pitch, results in the league have been impressive with well fought victories over AC Milan, Bologna and Chievo catapulting Napoli into third place in the league, just a few points behind earlier leaders Roma and Inter. A fine performance in the Champions league against Borussia Dortmund has also put them in the driver’s seat in their group however some tough matches lie ahead with trips to Arsenal and Marseille still to come. The focus however will be on league success after coming so close last year. Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis wants nothing more than to secure the Serie A title and get back a return for his investment.
Questions will be asked if the squad has enough depth to contend on multiple fronts both domestically and in Europe. Wednesday’s draw against bottom placed Sassuolo is a game that Napoli should be winning comfortably if they are to challenge for honours but highlights a problem in mindset. With the exception of AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund, Benetiz’s side has yet to be tested, that was until Wednesday. Going into the match, Napoli underestimated their opponents, who after gaining promotion for the first time in their history last year, sat pointless at the bottom of the league. Despite taking a fifteen minute lead, Napoli appeared to take their foot of the gas and paid the penalty as they allowed Simone Zaza to nip in and score an equalizer. Most teams in this position would step it up but Napoli looked as though their minds were elsewhere, presumably confident that they would find another goal. Against a resilient Sassoulo defence who needed to get their first point of the campaign, it never came and Napoli dropped two valuable points, much to the frustration of Benetiz. With the toughest month of the campaign to come at the end of March/ beginning of April when the face Juventus, Parma, Lazio , Udinese and Inter in a row, securing points against lower teams early on in the campaign could be the difference between winning the title and missing out. Benetiz is a winner, having guided an underdog Liverpool side to the Champions League and a disheartened Chelsea to the Europa League, but can he work his miracles again and help Napoli back to title winning ways.