Carpe Diem, Baby: Is This Napoli’s Biggest Chance to End Thirty Years of Hurt?

With the 2019/20 Serie A season kicking off this weekend, a summer of change at Juventus has left question marks over the Bianconeri’s ability to sustain their dominance in Italy’s top flight. Whilst the chasing pack have all strengthened during the transfer window, Napoli remain the frontrunners to wrestle the Scudetto from the Agnelli family. With the help of journalist and lifelong supporter of I Ciucci Marco D’Onofrio, we assess the chances of the title arriving at the Stadio San Paolo for the first time since 1990. 

The Quatrtieri Spagnoli, some five kilometres east from Napoli’s home ground, is perhaps the most infamous district in the city of Naples. Suffering from high rates of unemployment and crime, the area is intrinsically linked with the Camorra organisation. Scratch beneath the surface however, and you’ll find that its residents are also the beating heart of a city that considers itself Neapolitan first and Italian second. The Neapolitan language is spoken more widely in the Spanish Quarter than anywhere else, and it is home to a rich and vibrant culture of art and food. Arguably the most famous piece is the homage to Diego Maradona on the walls of Emanuele De Deo.

Painted by artist Mario Filardi following SSC Napoli’s second Serie A title in four years, the bold and colourful mural has provided a constant reminder to one of the country’s most deprived areas to be proud of their Neapolitan roots. In a nation where the north/south divide is more pronounced that most, identity is an important part of day-to-day life. There was never so much pride in Naples as there was during Maradona’s seven years at the San Paolo. Signed for a world record fee of £6.9m, the Argentinian’s arrival at Napoli came as a shock to many, with the Blues having finished in the bottom half of the table for the previous two seasons. Signed by Rino Mareschi, it would be under Ottavio Bianchi and Alberto Bigon that El Diego would flourish. Top scorer in his first two seasons as Napoli climbed up the Serie A table, his third year in Southern Italy would mark the beginning of a glut of trophies, as the arrival of Andrea Carnevale from Udinese took a little pressure off the diminutive playmaker’s shoulders, and the pair fired Bianchi’s side to their first ever league title, adding the Coppa Italia for good measure.

A first European trophy arrived in 1989, with Brazilian striker Careca dovetailing with Maradona to lift the UEFA Cup against Jurgen Klinsmann’s Stuttgart, before Milan were pipped to the Scudetto in 89/90. After decades of dominance from the teams of Turin, Rome and Milan, it finally looked as though the south of Italy would have a side competing at the top of the league for the foreseeable future. Sadly, it was not to be. Following the 1990 World Cup, Maradona cut an increasingly erratic figure at the San Paolo, with allegations of drug abuse, an illegitimate son, and a relationship with the Camorra surfacing over the course of the following season. His fitness a constant source of speculation, El Pibe de Oro’s time in Italy came to an end in 1991.

Napoli’s fortunes would drastically change without him. Troubles on the pitch were matched by the club’s finances, and by 2004 Napoli were declared bankrupt and demoted to Serie C. Refounded by filmmaker Aurelio De Laurentiis, the club began the climb back up to the top flight. By 2007, Gli Azzuri had returned to Serie A and, thanks to the funding of De Laurentiis, the club were able to build a new squad on a sound financial footing, adding star quality with the likes of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani. In 2011, Walter Mazzarri steered Napoli to their highest finish in more than twenty years, and the following season lifted the Coppa Italia, their first major piece of silverware since Maradona had departed.

The club were soon re-established at the top table of Italian football; Rafael Benitez won another Italian Cup in his first season, simultaneously building the foundations for the squad that Maurizio Sarri would take to the brink of the Scudetto. In 2017/18, they finished second with 91 points, a club record total, and an all-time high for a runner-up. Were it not for the total dominance of Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus over the past four years, its fair to say that Napoli would have added a few more Serie A titles to their trophy cabinet.

“As disappointed as fans were to see Maurizio Sarri leave, the fact that the club was able to bring in an internationally renowned coach like Ancelotti definitely helped ease the pain. Along with a plethora of experience and success, Ancelotti brings with him a sense of calm that was and still is really needed on the shores of Naples. He never lets emotions get the best of him which is crucial in a city that never stops thinking about football.”
Marco D’Onofrio, Stereo Serie A

The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti last summer to replace the Chelsea-bound Sarri was seen as a major coup. A serial winner, having lifted league titles in four different countries and being one of only three managers to have won the Champions League three times, the man affectionately known as Carlito was expected to fill the vacant role with the Italian national team, but plumped to take on the fifth Italian club of his career. Serious investment was ploughed into a squad that had finished four points behind champions Juventus the previous season, with Fabian Ruiz, Simone Verdi, Kevin Malcuit and Alex Meret all arriving for big money, but the departures of the reliable Pepe Reina and midfield metronome Jorginho were keenly felt from the off. The rotation of stand-in ‘keepers David Ospina and Orestis Karnezis appeared to unsettle a defence that had kept nineteen clean sheets in the previous season, as Ancelotti’s side shipped ten goals in their opening seven games.

Already on the back foot thanks to Juve’s relentless march to their eighth league title on the bounce, the departure of club legend Marek Hamsik to China in January left Napoli’s midfield lacking a creative spark. Impressive performances against Roma and Inter aside, too often the frontline of Arkadiusz Milik, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne were found wanting in front of goal, leading to points being dropped against the so-called lesser sides in the league. Three goalless draws in four games all but ended the Blues’ slim hopes of a title push, before Allegri’s side arrived at the San Paolo to complete a league double. Though they clung on to second spot in the league, the widening gap behind Juventus is a cause for concern.

“While many fans were disappointed The Tactician was unable to bring silverware or a closer Scudetto fight in his first season, most are still very fond of the coach and believe in what he can bring to the club. More will be expected of him in his second season at the San Paolo though and only time will tell whether he can live up to the expectations.”
Marco D’Onofrio, 
Stereo Serie A

De Laurentiis has looked to address his teams shortcomings in the transfer window, with Kostas Manolas arriving from Roma for £32m. A younger upgrade on outgoing stalwart Raul Albiol, the Greek centre-back provides extra height to a defence that ranked bottom for Aerial Duels won last season, while the former Olympiakos man’s ability to turnover play will be key to improving on last season’s average of just 9.4 interceptions per game – the fourth lowest in the division. Joining Manolas are Giovanni Di Lorenzo, who provides an attacking outlet on the right side of defence having notched five goals and three assists for relegated Empoli last time out; a marked improvement on the two assists laid on by Malcuit. Highly-rated North Macedonian teenager Eljif Elmas arrives from Fenerbahce to replace Roma-bound Amadou Diawara, and will provide tenacity from the bench.

There is still work to do before the transfer window slams shut across Europe however, and there has been speculation all summer regarding the potential arrivals of two exciting playmakers that could tilt the title race Carlito’s way. Hirving Lozano looks set to arrive from PSV Eindhoven for around €42m off the back of another fruitful season in the Eredivisie. The Mexican has been involved in 25 goals in both of the last two seasons for PSV, while his lightning pace and fleet-footed finishing drove Mexico into the last sixteen at the 2018 World Cup. Alongside more technical midfielders like Piotr Zielinksi and Fabian Ruiz, he’ll add an extra dimension to Napoli’s attack. The last name on De Laurentiis’ hitlist has provided one of the most enduring transfer stories of the summer, with a loan move for James Rodriguez still rumbling on in the background. Surplus to requirements at Real Madrid, and not deemed a valuable use of Bayern Munich’s budget, James could prove to be the talisman Ancelotti is looking for should Napoli and Real manage to thrash out a deal. For the time being, the side must prepare for the opening weekend trip to the Artemio Franchi, and a stern test of their credentials against Fiorentina.

“What Napoli is really looking for is a consistent and legitimate threat in the number 9 position. While Dries Mertens looked fantastic there under Maurizio Sarri, he is not the big and powerful striker that Ancelotti prefers up top and will likely be used more in a wide position. Arkadiusz Milik has all the physical attributes of a typical Ancelotti center-forward and has shown flashes of brilliance, but is very inconsistent. The Polish striker frustrated fans and management alike by missing some crucial opportunities in front of goal last season.”
Marco D’Onofrio, 
Stereo Serie A

While De Laurentiis has been assertive in addressing the weaknesses in Napoli’s squad, the destiny of the Scudetto this season remains in the hands of those at the Allianz Arena. Since Antonio Conte took charge of Juventus in 2011, the Old Lady have won eight league titles in a row and, while the transition from Conte to Allegri saw a fifteen point deficit season-on-season, Juve have not dropped more than 27 points in a single campaign since that first season under their former midfielder. The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid last summer sent a message to the rest of the league that, while Serie A may not represent the pinnacle of European football it did in the nineties, the Bianconeri are still able to attract the superstars of world football. Despite his advancing years, Ronaldo finished the season as Juve’s top scorer with 21 goals – more than fellow forwards Mario Mandzukic, Moise Kean and Paulo Dybala managed between them. The returning Leonardo Bonucci quickly shook off his nightmare season with Milan to marshall the league’s best defence alongside Giorgio Chiellini, while Rodrigo Bentancur and Emre Can added vigour to the midfield.

This summer, following the retirement of stalwart Andrea Barzagli, Juventus sent another reminder to their fellow European elites by securing the signature of Matthijs de Ligt for €75m, with the highly-rated Dutchman having been linked with a move to Barcelona for the best part of a year. The free signings of Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey have further bolstered their midfield options, but the club’s extravagance over the last two summer windows has come at a price. The sales of Kean and Joao Cancelo to Everton and Manchester City were necessary to balance the books, leaving the burden of goalscoring on an ageing strikeforce, and an inferior option at full-back in Danilo.

Question marks also remain over the appointment of Sarri. Despite his enduring popularity in Naples, the former banker is a step away from the Agnelli family’s usual head coach policy. Where Juventus tend to lean towards appointing proven winners in the hot seat, Sarri’s solitary trophy win came just a few months ago after a fraught season at Stamford Bridge. Whether the new manager is able to adopt a more pragmatic approach, rather than sticking staunchly by his preferred style of his play as he did at Chelsea, much to the chagrin of supporters, may be the difference between success and failure at the Allianz.

“Make no mistake about it, the Scudetto is still Juventus’ to lose. However, both Napoli and Inter have the quality to make a real run at the title this season and if things work out then we could be seeing a new Italian champion for the first time in eight years. If either Napoli or Inter were to dethrone Juventus though, they need to get the job done against both Serie A’s giants and minnows alike. Last year, neither team was consistent enough to really threaten the Bianconeri.”
Marco D’Onofrio, Stereo Serie A

It’s not just Napoli waiting to pounce on a potential season of transition in Turin, however. Antonio Conte’s return to Serie A has caused much excitement at the Giuseppe Meazza, where Inter are hoping their own trophy drought will finally come to an end. With just one Coppa Italia win to speak of since the Jose Mourinho inspired treble of 2010, owners Suning have sanctioned over £150m worth of transfers to assist Conte in his bid to win a fourth Serie A title. Among the new faces, Uruguayan veteran Diego Godin and Romelu Lukaku look the most significant, with the former Atletico defensive general capable of further tightening the league’s second best defence from last season, while club record signing Lukaku represents a less tempestuous source of goals than Mauro Icardi.

Inter’s neighbours Milan head into a campaign with a new head coach of their own, as Marco Giampaolo looks to build on his impressive work at Sampdoria by taking on the basket case of the Rossoneri. The form of Krzysztof Piątek, who faded badly after an impressive start following his arrival from Genoa last season, will be the difference between a title challenge and a scrap for Europe this season. Roma, another side who’ve been there or thereabouts during Juve’s near-decade of dominance, should improve following the arrival of Pau Lopez from Betis. How the departures of lifelong Romanisti Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti affects the atmosphere around the club remains to be seen.

“I’m expecting a hard fought campaign that should be much closer than last year. Unlike Juventus, Inter, Milan and Roma, Napoli are entering the season with the same coach as they had last year. This should provide an advantage as the club has not lost any of their major stars and have brought in quality reinforcements. I believe this year Napoli will lift their first trophy since the 2014 Italian Supercoppa.”
Marco D’Onofrio, Stereo Serie A

If Napoli are to end their thirty year barren run, a good start to the season is vital. Renovation works on the San Paolo have meant that Ancelotti’s side must play their first two games away from home, and while Fiorentina represent a formidable, if beatable, prospect on the opening weekend, a trip to the Allianz Arena a week later is a serious test of their title credentials. Perhaps an opportunity to catch Sarri’s team cold so early in the new manager’s reign, three points would really put the cat among the pigeons. The Blues must seize the day.

Thanks to Marco D’Onofrio for contributing his thoughts to this piece. Marco’s work can be found at Stereo Serie A, Far From Vesuvius, and Soccer 360 Magazine. You can also follow Marco on Twitter.

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