The Champions League has sprung back into life this week, and while Arsenal, Chelsea and Celtic all feature in Wednesday's evening's matches, the game you really should be watching is Napoli vs Borussia Dortmund.
Yes, Barcelona are lovely, and isn’t it nice to have Basel and Atletico Madrid around? But if you’re looking for something a bit juicier, the Group F clash between the Serie A leaders and last season’s Champions League finalists is the one with the ingredients to make mouths water.
For starters, the game at the Stadio San Paolo gives us another chance to watch Dortmund, the yellow and black buccaneers who charmed the world with their fairytale run to Wembley last season. Their swagger, intensity and sheer bloodlust for the ball were a breath of fresh air for European football.
BVB’s bright young things took the continent by storm, led by Jürgen Klopp, their eccentric, smiley and slightly zany manager – the cool uncle you've always wanted. By virtue of his eccentric manner, Klopp became a household name last season. Look behind the glasses and beaming grin, however, and you see a master tactician with a brilliant football mind.
A great tactical mind... honest
Klopp’s style has virtually revolutionised football over the past 18 months. The popular 46-year-old has led the game away from the Barcelona-style tiki taka of calculated yet sometimes mundane ball possession, and ushered in a new era of fast-paced, aggressive gegenpressing – a high-speed chasing game in which players close up space and charge down opponents like a pack of hungry wolves. It’s a style as frantic as it is thrilling to watch.
Dortmund’s blueprint was adopted by several sides, including Bayern Munich (who perfected it, leading to Klopp’s angry comparisons to the Chinese). It was no surprise to see the two German teams make it all the way to a Wembley Champions League final last season.
However, in Napoli, Dortmund face a tough opponent in this season's opener. Coach Walter Mazzarri may have left for Inter, and honourary son of Naples, Edinson Cavani, is now the pride of Paris, but Napoli reinvested heavily in the summer, hiring Rafa Benitez and handing him £76m to spend on new players.
A 100% start sees Napoli top Serie A after three games, with nine goals scored and only two conceded. This, however, is Rafa’s first real test in his Italian job pt. II.
Still, Napoli have fond memories of German opposition. Their last victory over a German side was hugely significant: with Diego Maradona in his pomp, they beat VfB Stuttgart 2-1 at home before drawing 3-3 away to lift their only European trophy, the 1989 UEFA Cup.
With Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi gone, Napoli’s remaining musketeer is skipper Marek Hamsik – undoubtedly their star player and man of the moment. The spiky-haired Slovakian playmaker has started the season in dictatorial form by scoring four goals, directing the team’s attack and prompting his former president at Brescia to value him at “more than €100million”.
Hamsik’s wonderful subtlety and invention – he topped Serie A’s assist charts last season with 14 – has impressed Benitez, who pricked ears on Merseyside when he declared the 26-year-old has more “tactical intelligence” than Steven Gerrard. His two-goal display at Chievo
demonstrated his qualities.
Hamsik has been a revelation for Napoli so far this season
Alongside Hamsik are Real Madrid rejects Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon. Signed for a combined £50m, the trio have settled in well: Callejon has already added welcome energy down Napoli’s right side, scoring three times in as many games, and could be a key man here.
Meanwhile, the summer loss of Mario Götze to Bayern appears to have had little effect on Dortmund’s strut. The signings of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were two of the best made anywhere in Europe this summer, and already they have eight net-ripplers between them.
Goal machine Robert Lewandowski is still there, as are Marco Reus, İlkay Gündoğan & Co. Add Aubameyang’s lightning speed to Mhkitaryan’s immaculate midfield play and goalscoring prowess, and Klopp has a side that should once again dazzle the Bundesliga – and maybe Europe.
The tactical battle
As Rafa meets ‘Kloppo’ for the first time, an interesting tactical battle awaits. Under Mazzarri, Napoli played more of a 3-4-3 system. Benitez discarded that immediately in favour of a 4-2-3-1, with Higuain the focal point. Two of Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Callejon zip around in wide areas while Hamsik and the vastly underrated Gokhan Inler control things in midfield.
Dortmund’s high tempo 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid will be an issue for Napoli to deal with, and the Partenopei must be wary of Dortmund’s ruthless counter attack. Benitez has nonetheless promised an open approach. “We are not thinking about playing 11 men behind the ball,” the Spaniard declared. “We want to attack and win.”
Rafa: Enjoying his return to Italy
Another reason you should watch this game is because it’s as close to the old-school knockout ties as you’re likely to get at this early stage. There are no Austria Wiens or Viktoria Plzens here, with the greatest respect to those teams. Calling Group F a 'group of death' might be a cliché, but Marseille, Arsenal, Napoli and Dortmund will all be aware that danger lies just around the corner in each contest.
Sir Alex Ferguson has always held 10 points as the default target to climb safely out of the group stage. Win your three home games, pick up a point away and you’re home and dry.
In Group F, however, nothing will be guaranteed and any early slip-ups could prove fatal. Putting everything else aside, Napoli vs Dortmund will be riveting to watch simply because it means something.
Wenger believes Group F is the most difficult
Napoli’s support is the stuff of legend, and you can guarantee a hot atmosphere at the Stadio San Paolo as they return to the Champions League group stage for the second time.
“The fans will be decisive,” Benitez insisted in the build-up. Napoli are unbeaten at home in Serie A in 2013 – but Dortmund’s swarm of killer bees will put that to the test in what should be a fascinating encounter.