With Napoli already way behind the leaders after a dreadful start to the season, Rafa Benitez's job is under scrutiny. Times change quickly, writes Adam Digby...
Writing in his La Repubblica column on Monday, Fabrizio Bocca mused that “the next 35 weeks of the season are likely to be useless” and proposed an NBA-style seven-game play-off series between Juventus and Roma to decide the title.
With last year’s top two already four points ahead of the chasing pack, it's easy to see why he would propose such an idea – the gulf in quality is clearly visible even at this early stage.
Yet the major reason behind such an opinion is not the excellence of Serie A’s frontrunners, but the flawed and troubled teams attempting to keep pace with them.
From an injury-ravaged Fiorentina to a Milan side seemingly incapable of defending under Pippo Inzaghi, the peninsula’s second tier of teams all appear to have serious issues.
Nowhere is that more evident than with Napoli, the side who finished closest to the leading duo last term, and good enough to leave fourth place in their wake by some 13 points.
Regression, not progression
Rafael Benitez looked on as his new club sold its best striker, just as he had done when arriving at Liverpool, and then set about adding a new formation and improved defensive resolve to an already formidable team.
In a similar fashion to how the Anfield club allowed Michael Owen to leave for Real Madrid, Napoli received a huge fee from PSG for Edinson Cavani, and reinvested the funds to bring in a plethora of attackers.
Dispensing with predecessor Walter Mazzarri’s well-established back three, Benitez built a new-look side around the attacking prowess of Gonzalo Higuaín and José Callejón, and then watched as the former Real Madrid duo combined to find the net 32 times.
They added 13 assists, and only Antonio Conte’s runaway champions bettered Napoli’s eventual tally of 77 goals, the Partenopei playing some of the most entertaining football around and thrilling neutrals by doing the same in the Champions League.
With another summer together, it was expected the team would grow and improve further: Benitez's success at Valencia and Liverpool showed he could build competitive teams when given time to do so.
Yet, despite the side’s biggest weaknesses being in defence, Napoli’s summer transfer campaign would only really see attacking reinforcements arrive, the most high-profile deal being Michu's loan move from Swansea. Links to Javier Mascherano and Marouane Fellaini went unfulfilled, leaving the backline remarkably thin for a club of their stature and ambition.
The opening weeks of the season have seen them ruthlessly exposed. An opening-day victory over Genoa was only secured courtesy of a 95th-minute winner, and has been followed up by three abject defeats.
Napoli were poor in their losses to both Udinese and Chievo, a feeling compounded by them throwing away a two-goal lead against Palermo on Wednesday. In isolation, those results alone would put Benitez under pressure, but the added problem comes with their Champions League play-off defeat to Athletic Bilbao.
Looking back, those two games should have served as a warning for what has happened since. Napoli wasted a number of opportunities in the first leg, and then travelled to Bilbao where they took an early lead before a complete collapse, starting when Aritz Aduriz was left unmarked at the far post to tap in an equaliser.
The same player then gave his side the lead as Raul Albiol and Rafael Cabral combined to hand him another chance. Ibai Gomez’s third goal compounded their misery, laying bare the disorganised state of the defence.
As bad as they have been at the back, even more alarming is the fact that the goals appear to have dried up at the other end. A team boasting Higuaín, Callejón, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne has scored just two league goals in three games this term, yet after last weekend led Serie A's average shots per game (19) chart. Their 5.7 attempts on target was also a league high, and those statistics prompted a tirade from Benitez.
His press conference ahead of the Palermo game last weekend was eerily reminiscent of his infamous ‘fact’ rant at Sir Alex Ferguson as he told reporters: “You can analyse a game by the feeling of the game, the results, or by the numbers. The team that shoots the most in Serie A is Napoli, as well as the team which has the most possession in the opposition half.
“The results aren’t what we expected, but I think we can have a good season. Numbers don’t tell you everything... I’m angry about the games we lost because I’m 100 per cent convinced we deserved more.”
His outburst conjured flashbacks of his ill-fated spells at Chelsea and Inter, but events over recent months have ushered in a very different atmosphere at Napoli.
Just eight years after breaking attendance records in Italy’s third division, the club sold just 6,500 season tickets this term as their lack of spending and Champions League elimination saw enthusiasm wane. The usually vociferous Stadio San Paolo was barely two thirds full for the home opener against Chievo, the club’s supporters making their disdain abundantly clear.
Vote of confidence
Their form has seen Higuaín publically express his frustration, with the Argentine storming off the field after the match against Bilbao. Benitez has only added to their problems with some strange personnel decisions, including fielding Miguel Britos at left-back against Udinese last week.
Tuesday’s Gazzetta dello Sport proclaimed Roberto Mancini as the leading candidate to replace the coach, claiming the former Manchester City boss will take charge in the summer if not before.
The club’s owner Aurelio De Laurentiis has moved to dispel rumours that the Spaniard – whose contract expires next summer – is at risk, urging the fans to get behind the team and calling him “a talented coach”.
Benitez has the track record to back such a claim but now, just as he has in the past, his job appears under serious pressure. “We must look ahead with optimism,” De Laurentiis told reporters. For Napoli and their fans, however, that is becoming increasingly difficult the more they watch their team regress.
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