For the first time in three years, Napoli is going to open a season without Edinson Cavani leading their front line.
The Uruguayan scored 104 goals in 138 games in all competitions in his three seasons at the San Paolo, garnering interest from giants from all corners of the Continent who were interested in his services. Napoli has been greatly successful the past few years, but given the financial situation currently faced by all in Italy it was a foregone conclusion that team president Aurelio De Laurentiis would have to sell the striker eventually.
De Laurentiis played the game smart, however. When Cavani signed a new contract before last season, he inserted a €63 million release clause. This summer, attempts were made by teams like Chelsea and Real Madrid to get De Laurentiis to sell Cavani at a price lower than the clause. The film scion stuck to his guns, and eventually it was Paris Saint-Germain that finally triggered the release and claimed the striker.
The hefty release clause allowed De Laurentiis to reinvest in his squad and rebuild it to survive the absence of their top scorer.
The biggest element of that rebuild is striker Gonzalo Higuain. Formerly of Real Madrid, the Argentine was a target of Juventus and Arsenal this year, but Napoli won his signature with a €37 million fee. Higuain will take over Cavani's role at the top of Napoli's formation. He'll be joined by returnees Goran Pandev and Lorenzo Insigne, as well as fellow new signing Dries Mertens. The Belgian scored 45 goals in 86 games in all competitions the last two years for PSV Eindhoven and has scored twice in 19 caps for the emerging Belgian national team.
There have also been upgrades in be back. Goalkeeper Pepe Reina is in on loan from Liverpool, expected to be an upgrade from the aging Morgan De Sanctis, who has since been sold to Roma. Raul Albiol has followed Higuain from Real Madrid in order to fill the void left by Hugo Campagnaro, who has followed former coach Walter Mazzari to Inter.
These changes should keep the club at roughly the same level as they were last year, if not a higher one.
Napoli is positioned well in terms of the team sheet, but there are a few things that need to be addressed. For one thing, the transition from Mazzari to new manager Rafael Benitez will have to be negotiated. Mazzari's 3-5-2 formation has spread like wildfire throughout the league, with even league champions Juventus copying the formation to great effect.
The team will have to adapt to what Benitez will bring to the table tactically. The team is good enough for that to be a minor obstacle though, unless he ends up trying to install tactics totally unsuited to the players at hand, much like the way Gian Piero Gasperini did at Inter a few years ago.
Napoli's biggest problem is going to have to be their catchword the entire year: balance.
A year ago Cavani scored 29 of Napoli's 73 league goals. That's a whopping 39.7 percent of the team's output.
Marek Hamsik was the only other player who scored more than seven goals in the league last season. Napoli's next-highest scoring forward was Goran Pandev with a paltry six. Only 11 players on the entire roster found the scoresheet.
By contrast, champions Juventus had 13 different players score in the league with no player scoring more than 10. With goals coming from so many places—particularly the midfield with Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio—Juve was able to compensate for its weakness at forward and prevent opponents from clamping down on a single player.
Last year Napoli's opponents were able to focus on stopping Cavani. During a six-game stretch in February and March in which Cavani was prevented from scoring, Napoli went 1-4-1 (W-D-L) and scored only four goals.
Higuain is a great replacement for Cavani, but Napoli's attack cannot run through him the way it ran through the Uruguayan.
Key in this effort to diversify will be young Lorenzo Insigne. The 22-year-old was a good provider last year, but he only scored five times—a far cry from the 18 that he scored two seasons ago on loan at Pescara. The young forward will have to take the next step in his development in order to stop teams collapsing on Higuain and making the difficult job of filling Cavani's shoes that much harder.
Where will Napoli finish in the league this season?
The last hurdle is going to be again negotiating the Champions League. Playing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be a nicer alternative to Thursdays, but Italian clubs rarely play their full-strength sides in the Europa League, whereas Napoli's best players will be going midweek once UCL play starts.
Two years ago Walter Mazzari complained bitterly about the way the Champions League drained his squad, leading to the team's collapse in the second half the 2011-12 season. Rafa Benitez has won a Champions League with Liverpool, so he knows how to keep his team fresh through European competition. Many of the players on the roster are veterans of Napoli's last Champions League campaign, so they'll be familiar with the rigors of European competition.
Napoli will be roughly on the same footing as it was a year ago this season. It has probably improved. Unfortunately for Napoli, Juventus has improved right along with it, which will make Benitez's side's task of catching the champions just as tough.
Be sure, though, that they will be fighting tootha and nail withe the likes of AC Milan and Fiorentina for the remaining two Champions League places. This team may be without its talisman from a year ago, but the smart business approach Aurelio De Laurentiis took to handling Cavani's situation has saved the team from crashing and burning from the loss.