Dangerous perhaps for the most superstitious city in Italy, but the current Napoli team are already being talked about as a side that could reach the heights achieved by the Diego Maradona-inspired Napoli of the 1980s. Then, il Ciuccio won two Serie A titles (1986/87 and 1989/90), a Coppa Italia and a UEFA Cup.
Over the last two seasons, under the guidance of coach Walter Mazzarri, Napoli have impressed all Italian football, finishing third in 2010/11 to qualify for the Champions League, winning the Coppa Italia against an “unbeatable” Juventus last season, after a slightly disappointing Serie A campaign, and excelling in Europe, knocking Manchester City and Villarreal out to reach the Round of 16, only to lose to eventual winners Chelsea.
This year, despite losing Argentine striker Ezequiel Lavezzi to Paris Saint-Germain, the Azzurri look stronger and more competitive than ever and there is a growing sense that Mazzarri’s men can battle Juventus for the title until the very end of the season.
Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis bought Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas, beating Chelsea to his signature last January, with an eye on the 22-year-old replacing Lavezzi. After a difficult introduction to Italian football, Vargas is now a regular part of an exciting Napoli attack, even if he is not yet a first choice starter.
In fact, Mazzarri usually plays a quite defensive 3-5-2, which is nevertheless lethal on the counter attack thanks to Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani, Slovak attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik and Macedonian forward Goran Pandev. The trio have been key to Napoli’s victories so far this season.
Cavani has made a strong case to be classed as amongst the best strikers in the world. The Uruguayan did not impress on the big stage this summer during the 2012 London Olympics, but his attributes suit Italian football perfectly. Hamsik meanwhile came close to jumping ship for AC Milan in the summer of 2011, but opted to remain in Naples. On current evidence, the Slovakian made a wise choice and he is now the vital link between Mazzarri’s midfield and attack. Pandev meanwhile proved his quality as part of Inter’s 2009/10 Treble winning side under Jose Mourinho and, after two seasons of inconsistency, is now one of Napoli’s most important players.
But it is not just established stars that are driving the Azzurri forward. De Laurentiis also decided this was the season to give a chance to Lorenzo Insigne, a 21-year-old attacking phenomenon, who the club sent on loan to Pescara last year where he duly enjoyed a superb campaign under Zdenek Zeman (now Roma coach). Insigne demonstrated his talent in the opening games of the season, even earning a call up to the senior Italy side as a result, making his debut as a second half substitute in the side’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Malta in Modena. Italy performed poorly, but Insigne changed the match, lighting up the left hand side; the Italians won 2-0.
Mazzarri likes to pack the Napoli midfield and much importance is placed on the side’s left and right backs. Christian Maggio, and Colombian Juan Camilo Zuniga or Andrea Dossena, are essential to Mazzarri’s formation, providing crosses for Cavani and Pandev. There is also a slice of Switzerland running through the club’s engine room, with tough-tackling duo Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami handed the task of winning back possession quickly and starting counter attacks.
The problems for Napoli usually start at the other end, with a defence which can often be less than solid. Goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis is hugely experienced, but the Azzurri’s full-backs can be caught out, while Paolo Cannavaro, Hugo Campagnaro, Salvatore Aronica and Alessandro Gamberini are undoubtedly their side’s weak spot.
Another issue for Napoli is keeping a cool head. President De Laurentiis can be volcanic, while coach Mazzarri is controversial, becoming irritated quickly when the Azzurri show fragility on the pitch or a game turns against his team. In the Italian Super Cup match played in Beijing in mid-August against rivals Juventus, Napoli were on the receiving end of a number of poor refereeing decisions which left the side with nine men. Infuriated, Mazzarri, in full agreement with his president, decided to boycott the final ceremony on the pitch.
And so, if Napoli want to fight for the title, they must show their maturity on the big occasion, especially when coming up against sides such as Juventus, Inter and AC Milan, who are the strongest teams in the peninsula in “political” terms.
At the time of writing Napoli have won five of their first six league matches – plus a 4-0 destruction of AIK Solna in the Europa League, courtesy of a Vargas hat-trick – with results to make Serie A sit up and notice, which a 3-0 victory at Palermo on the opening day and the thrashing of Lazio by the same scoreline, certainly did. If any side looks ready to stop Juventus retaining the title, at present it is Napoli.