Napoli are the only team to have beaten Liverpool this season – but now they're falling apart. Where has it gone wrong?
Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis is a film producer. For him, everything is a possible scenario, and he wants to make the best script imaginable. Sometimes, those are just fun episodes, like presenting the newly signed Gokhan Inler in a lion mask back in the summer of 2011.
De Laurentiis loves to entertain, but he is bound to forget that real life can't always be controlled. You can't just shout "cut" and demand that actors behave differently. Football players can be unpredictable – especially when their boss is infinitely more unpredictable.
Napoli has bee thrown into total chaos, and the situation is seemingly worsening with every passing day. The timing of the visit to Anfield in the Champions League is disastrous.
Where do the problems start?
De Laurentiis is blaming his stars for underachieving and not trying hard enough, but that is not necessarily the case. Pure statistics tell a different story: Napoli boast the second-highest number of shots per game in Serie A, while enjoying the second-highest amount of average possession. They have been unlucky on numerous occasions, having hit the woodwork nine times in 13 matches.
The most glaring example of such misfortunes took place on the last day of August, when Napoli gallantly fought back from 3-0 down to find three goals of their own at Juventus, only to be undone by a disastrous Kalidou Koulibaly own goal in injury time and lose 4-3.
A month later, Napoli attempted 30 shots against a very decent Cagliari side, but lost 1-0, with their opponents finding the net with their only shot on target.
Overall, Carlo Ancelotti was arguably finding the right balance in the team, and the deserved 2-0 win over Liverpool on the opening matchday of the Champions League showed that. Jurgen Klopp's troops were totally outplayed in their only defeat in any competition so far this season – and only the second since January. The ability to beat them showed that Napoli have remarkable potential, but the work is still in progress.
The transition from Maurizio Sarri's trademark style to a very different system under Ancelotti was never expected to be very smooth, and the previous season was rather disappointing football-wise, despite the fact that Napoli finished as runners up for the second season running. Patience was needed to improve this term, but it was clearly lacking, and De Laurentiis made a significant mistake when publicly insulting two major stars.
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Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon have been at Napoli since 2013. Both were signed under specific demands of Rafa Benitez, both were persuaded to join the club by the former Liverpool manager, both have become legends. Mertens has even recently overtook Diego Maradona as the club's second highest ever scorer, and is about to climb to the top at the expense of the departed captain Marek Hamsik. However, with the Slovakian now earning high salaries in China, media reports suggested that Mertens and Callejon could be tempted to join him when their contracts expire next summer.
Instead of quietly negotiating with the pair, De Laurentiis attacked them in the press. "I am not prepared to make a major effort for them. If they want to sell themselves out to China, overpaid to live a life of prostitutes for two years, it is their problem," the owner said in mid-October, and the situation deteriorated.
Napoli's dressing room is quite tight, and players stand by each other. Three Serie A matches without a win were followed by a disappointing 1-1 draw against Salzburg in the Champions League. The result was actually tolerable, because a win over Genk on the last matchday would ensure progress to the last 16 regardless of the trip to Liverpool.
And yet the film producer wanted to make a big show. He ordered players to spend a few days in a training retreat instead of going home. The stars openly refused to do so. The press called it mutiny.
— Everything Napoli (@NapoliAndNaples) November 26, 2019
New captain Lorenzo Insigne was leading the protest, alongside fellow veteran Allan. Ancelotti was caught in the middle, and didn't quite know how to react. He supported his players, but was reluctant to speak out his mind publically against De Laurentiis, and thus both camps don't seem to trust him at the moment. Would Benitez or Sarri have managed the situation better? We would never know, but Carletto – who was successful at clubs as complicated politically as Real Madrid and Chelsea – completely lost control at Napoli.
Fans are actually sympathetic to his troubles, but don’t seem to like the others involved. The ultras were calling for De Laurentiis to sell the club, while the players are attacked personally. Allan's house was burgled, Piotr Zielinski's car was damaged, wives and girlfriends are reportedly feeling extremely unsafe, and players are openly thinking of an escape route.
Such plans are actually intact with those of De Laurentiis, who threatened to sell everyone, including Insigne, Allan and Koulibaly. Mertens and Callejon would have to go in January in order for the club to prevent them from leaving for free. Nobody can focus on football in those circumstances, and Napoli are now counting six games without a win in all competitions. They are in eighth place in Serie A, a whopping 15 points behind Juventus, and even Champions League qualification looks questionable.
Overall, it could be an entertaining film to watch for neutrals, but extremely painful for those who support the proud club. Napoli are falling apart in front of our eyes, and Liverpool might destroy them on Wednesday to claim the top spot in Group E.