Napoli: Benitez era promises much

A new era beckons at Napoli under Rafael Benitez

A new era beckons at Napoli under Rafael Benitez

After having battled their way to a second place finish last year, changes seemed almost inevitable at Napoli. The sale of Cavani was a blow, but the money has been invested wisely, meaning Napoli have a deep squad with a very real chance of winning Serie A.

Cavani was Mr. Napoli for all three of his seasons at the club, although his fee rising to just €17 million. However, the Uruguayan’s blistering pace, energy, and unique yet accurate finishing made him the talk of European football at times.

Napoli’s impressive 2011/12 Champions League campaign gave foreign clubs their best glimpse yet of what Cavani could do, with help from Ezequiel Lavezzi, Juan Zuniga, Marek Hamsik, Goran Pandev, and others. Champions League football did not return to Naples for the 2012/13 season, as they finished fifth in Serie A, and despite winning the Coppa Italia, rumours began to circulate over the future of the club’s key players.

Having already suffered deep financial turmoil and troubles in previous years, Napoli’s owners knew they could not be reckless or overly ambitious, forcing the club to make tough decisions. Lavezzi left for PSG in the summer of 2012, and many expected Cavani to leave then.

However, he stayed, and proved once more that he was one of the world’s very finest strikers. Cavani’s thoroughly destructive performance against FC Dnipro of Ukraine in the Europa League, a match in which he scored all four goals in a 4-2 victory, was essentially a one match highlight reel of the electrifying Uruguayan. Cavani finished the season with a staggering 38 goals in 43 matches in all competitions, making a move seem almost certain.

Yet again, it was PSG who bought one of Napoli’s stalwarts, with the fee being around €64 million, almost four times the fee spent on Cavani in the first place. Many have begun questioning Napoli’s potential in the Champions League and Serie A without their talisman, but the signings made, as well as the arrival of Rafael Benitez means Napoli could change from being a tricky team to beat with a few in-demand players to being a genuine and consistent European powerhouse.

Napoli’s most notable coup this summer has been Gonzalo Higuain, the Argentine who spent six years at the mighty Real Madrid, but never really reached the heights of certain previous Madrid strikers. Still, the length of Higuain’s stint at Los Meringues and his goal record that reads 122 goals in 246 games proves that he is a world class signing, and could well be one of Serie A’s elite strikers.

Just like they did when Cavani was scoring goals for fun, Napoli have plenty of creativity in their squad, with Hamsik, Insigne, and another man signed from Madrid this summer, the technically gifted Jose Callejón, who never quite got enough games for Madrid to really impress. He will be hungry to show why he was touted as a future star in his younger days.

Napoli have a fantastic mix of experience and youth, with players at their supposed peak age of mid-20s, as exemplified by their array of defenders.

Speaking of experience, Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina has joined on loan from Liverpool, and despite being prone to the odd error or erratic move, he is a top quality shot stopper, and his presence around the dressing room will make the Napoli squad even more united, as Reina will be reunited with former manager Rafael Benitez. Reina, Maggio, Cannavaro, another ex-Madrid man Raul Albiol, and Juan Zuniga make for a very strong and idyllic back line, suitable for both Italian and European competition.

Gonzalo Higuain - star signing

Gonzalo Higuain – star signing

The addition of tricky Belgian winger Dries Mertens from PSV Eindhoven gives Napoli yet more width and creativity, giving an insight into how Benitez will want his team to set up, with either width, central creativity, or both. Rafael Benitez has long been an advocate of the lone striker, as shown by his use of Samuel Et’to at Inter, Fernando Torres at both Chelsea and Liverpool, Djibril Cisse at Liverpool, and a fair few others. It seems unfair to leave out any of Hamsik, Insigne, Callejón, Pandev and Mertens, but at least two of them will probably find themselves on the bench, for the key games at least.

I expect Napoli to utilise either a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation for the most part this season. Rafael Benitez has used both of these formations in the past, and both of them allow for the creative prowess of Hamsik, Callejón and the others to be the ace in Napoli’s metaphorical pack of cards.

With the 4-5-1 or maybe 4-4-1-1 option, I expect to see Mertens in the team alongside Callejón in “the hole” behind Gonzalo Higuain, with Hamsik, Insigne, or Pandev taking the final place.

However, with Juan Zuniga, one of the most attacking left backs in the game, being likely to be selected regularly, Benitez may decide against another attacking wide man on the left. If the 4-2-3-1 is used, the intelligent Behrami and the energetic Inler will have to hold in central midfield while Hamsik, Callejón and likely Insigne attack.

Whichever formation Benitez uses, he has the almost ideal squad to tinker with. The amount of both central and wide creativity means injuries shouldn’t affect the team’s ability to cause defensive problems for their opponents. The illustrious and experienced defensive line given earlier could make Napoli one of the steeliest defences in Europe, as Benitez often does.

The potential of this team is unquestionably high with hungry, determined players galore, ready to unleash themselves on both Serie A and Europe, with Juventus’s crown being the aim for the ever passionate Napoli fans.

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