Can Rafael Benitez Upset the Odds and Steer Napoli to Champions League Glory?
With the high octane Champions League group stages returning this week after the summer hiatus, the identity of a clear winner remains open to debate.
After an off-season where the transfer record was shattered, where one of the game's most successful patriarchs stepped aside and where it became evident that the days are gone when one team or nation looked superior, this year’s campaign deserves all the hyperbole.
Following last season's all-German final, when Bayern Munich eked out Borussia Dortmund 2-1 to vanquish a crucial part of what was an eventual treble, the rest of the continent will feel scorned.
With the holders augmented by the summer installation of Pep Guardiola as manager—who in his four years as Barcelona boss, masterminded two awe-inspiring victories of Europe's marquee competition—as well as the arrival of his former protege Thiago Alcantara, it is little surprise that the team from Bavaria are the bookmakers' favourites to reclaim their crown. Their dominant 3-0 opening win over CSKA Moscow saw them fly out of the traps.
However, with no team yet to win successive titles in the competition’s current form, history tells us it may not be that simple. Especially when there are so many continental powerhouses gunning for glory.
As well as Real Madrid's record-breaking acquisition of Welsh winger-cum-trequartista Gareth Bale, they also obtained Carlo Ancelotti, a coach with prodigious pedigree, and bestowed the funds on him to buy a phalanx of talent.
Not to be outdone, deadly rivals Barcelona also have a new head honcho: Gerard Martino will be hoping that, having steered unfancied Newell's Old Boys to Argentinian Primera Division success, he can have a similar galvanising effect on the Spanish champions.
Bar Mario Gotze, Borussia Dortmund managed to not only preserve the core of the team that looked so indomitable last year but they also added the impressive Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to their ranks. With three goals in four appearances for the former and five in five for the latter, both look set to have a virtuoso maiden season at Signal-Iduna Park.
The expensively-assembled Manchester City have publicly set Champions League glory as priority number one. With wave after wave of Wayne Rooney-inspired attack in their opening win against Bayer Leverkusen, Manchester United look insatiable in their hunt for European silverware.
Threats from all angles, essentially.
It is in Italy though where the dark horses lurk in the shadows, biding their time to bring the trophy back to the Azzurri for the first time since 2010.
Juventus, reinvigorated by back-to-back Scudetto wins as well as the arrivals of Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente, will be looking to amend the fact they haven't won the European trophy since 1996. Beginning their campaign, however, with a 1-1 away to Copenhagen is a lacklustre start.
AC Milan, a team who appearaed in three finals between 2002 and 2007, will be looking to threaten: Whilst Celtic looked over-awed at the San Siro, the Rossoneri were ruthless as they secured a 2-0 opening win.
Will Napoli win the Champions League?
It is the other Italian team though, the third of the triumvirate, who could stage a raucous gatecrashing ambush. Napoli and their cohort, last year's runners up behind Juventus, possess all the credentials to upset the odds.
Despite selling the aforementioned Cavani in the summer, the team from Naples has re-harvested the money wisely.
Recruiting Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon in the summer—coupling them with the cerebral Marek Hamsik, industrious Goran Pandev, meticulous Dries Mertens and prodigious Lorenzo Insigne—the Partenopei will exude attacking potency: The former Real Madrid duo have contributed a collective five goals in the three league games thus far.
Drawn in a group alongside Arsenal, Marseille as well as the previously lauded Dortmund, Napoli do not have a safe passage to the knockout rounds. Losing manager Walter Mazzarri in the summer to Inter Milan, a man who grew in stature with his players, is not an ideal run-up.
Replacing him with Rafael Benitez though was a masterstroke. Club president Aurelio de Laurentiis has captured a man who prides himself on offering nous in European competitions.
Citing it as his main selling point, he has been honing his skills for almost a decade. Before arriving at Liverpool in 2004, he guided Valencia to UEFA Cup glory. And then came his finest hour: In May 2005, Liverpool came from 3-0 down to defeat AC Milan on penalties and lift the Champions League for a fifth time.
That victory almost never came about: Twice that season Benitez masterminded victories when defeat looked inevitable. Helped chiefly by Steven Gerrard, they secured the 3-1 win against Olympiakos to escape the group stages and then, aided by a rookie Scott Carson, they travelled to Juventus and left Turin with the necessary 0-0 draw to advance to the next round.
More recently, after taking over at Chelsea on an interim basis last season, Benitez, against the odds, navigated the club to Europa League success when being universally lambasted by Chelsea fans.
"You always want to do your best" Benitez recently stated (via The Guardian). "But with that commitment and love it is even more important to do well". In their new coach, Napoli have a man who has not only traversed a number of tricky European situations but has often emerged victorious.
It is his bold tactics, his ability to go against the grain and select players who can handle or hurt the opposition, which will benefit Napoli this season in Europe.
At Liverpool, he stuck by the whimsical yet assiduous Djimi Traore. At Chelsea he would consistently start with Fernando Torres, a man whose poor goalscoring form looked unimaginable two seasons ago, for the fact he can run at defenders and open spaces for his colleagues.
Employing his own methods, rather than what the fans think, has already been evident in Serie A: Recalibrating the team from Mazzarri’s 3-2-4-1—where the three centre-halves were flanked by two rampaging wing-backs—and instead moving towards a 4-2-3-1 formation, Callejon and Mertens can roam in the space behind the Higuain-centric attack.
With Pepe Reina in goal, a defence containing the solid Raul Albiol and Paolo Cannavaro, a midfield overflowing with creativity and an attack which looks chronically dangerous, Benitez has strength in depth to rotate.
For those who fancy a punt, odds of 40/1 on Napoli are to be savoured yet reflect the fact they are grave outsiders. However, were we not saying the same thing about Borussia Dortmund this time last year? The same Borussia Dortmund who succumbed to a 2-1 loss against Napoli on Wednesday.
With an impressive 59 percent possession in their win against Dortmund, it is clear Benitez likes his team to contain the opposition before working the ball into the area (eight of Napoli's 15 shots came from within their opponent's box, as reported here by Sky Sports). This approach could be vital if they are to succeed.
The last time Napoli fans witnessed their team grasp European silverware was back in 1989 when a certain diminutive Argentinian was pivotal in overcoming Stuttgart. With Maradona’s compatriot the focal point of Napoli’s attack this season, Rafael Benitez is the perfect foil to aid Gonzalo Higuain in the quest to fire the Partenopei into continental recognition.
What are your thoughts? Should Europe’s major teams see Napoli as a threat? Will Rafael Benitez’s tactical nous work yet again? Or is this a season purely transitional? Let me know either in the comments section below or via Twitter: @LeRowley
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