In 1986 it was Diego Maradona and in 2013, it was Gonzalo Higuain. Fittingly, the club’s new Argentinian star scored in Napoli’s first victory at the home of AC Milan in 27 years, just as his illustrious compatriot had done on the last occasion it happened.
These are heady times. The win maintained Napoli’s 100 percent record in the league after four games, leaving them behind Roma only on goal difference. Yet amid scenes of joy and rancour—including Mario Balotelli’s latest implosion—the man who masterminded it all soaked it all in with a poised, neutral expression. Rafael Benitez’s star is rising again, but he is not shouting it from the rooftops.
It had been the same on Wednesday when Borussia Dortmund were toppled at the San Paolo. Amid the white-hot atmosphere Benitez studied his notes and made a few of his trademark sweeping hand gestures to his players, but barely moved a facial muscle.
It is a poker face he further perfected amid the poisonous atmosphere that enveloped his awkward six-month spell at Chelsea, which ultimately vindicated him, on a results level at least. Inheriting a dysfunctional side in wild transition, Benitez took them to the Champions League and to Europa League victory, though that senior players only felt they could robustly praise Benitez after the final—and his departure—said much for the strength of enmity many fans felt towards the Spaniard:
As Rafa Benitez continues his 100% record at Napoli with wins v Dortmund & Milan I bet he misses Stamford Bridge. pic.twitter.com/06vPWKfKQW— Arsene's Eyes (@Arsenes_Eyes) September 22, 2013
With his reputation partly restored for traversing the heckles of Stamford Bridge with considerable dignity, the rehabilitation is continuing apace in southern Italy. This is how Italy should have been for Benitez first time around, but wasn’t.
With a contract inked at Internazionale four days after the Liverpool exit that left him with a heavy heart, it was his rebound move and it was never going to work out. In addition to his emotional status, Benitez had a team in need of major renewal, with a president keen to cut costs and no chance of matching Jose Mourinho’s newly won treble. He lasted 13 days past the six-month mark.
Italy should have been his Valhalla, where tactical debate rather than tattle is king. Benitez’s eyes have always lit up with glee when discussing the nuts and bolts of the game. He has never relished verbal jousts. His backfired attempts to lock horns with Sir Alex Ferguson during Liverpool’s title near-miss in 2008-09 remains infamous and showed how ill-at-ease he always was in the mind games that Ferguson and Mourinho revelled in.
Yet if Mourinho and Benitez are in many ways opposites, they do share a couple of key attributes. Firstly, both have an extraordinary attention to detail. Secondly, they believe that a head coach must always adapt to survive.
Napoli have undergone profound changes from Walter Mazzari to Benitez, moving from 3-5-2 to 4-2-3-1. This is no tactical dogma; the changes have freshened players already there as well as incorporating new ones, such as Jose Callejon. Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga have looked accomplished playing as more orthodox full-backs, to the surprise of many.
For the recent home game against Atalanta, Benitez even took the previously unthinkable step of resting the iconic Marek Hamsik, much to the Slovakian’s displeasure. Hamsik was brought on for the last 25 minutes, contributing strongly as Napoli finally broke down determined visitors. Benitez has challenged him to develop in a more advanced role in support of Higuain, and Hamsik has responded.
At the San Siro this weekend, it was Gokhan Inler’s turn to surprisingly sit out the majority of the match four days after he ran the show in the defeat of Champions League finalists Dortmund. It speaks volumes for a squad considerably strengthened by the proceeds of Edinson Cavani’s sale, but also of a head coach who has the nous to switch emphasis.
The win at Milan was not vintage Napoli, but crucially suggested they can find a way to win when below their best. Juventus are still clear title favourites, given their and their coach Antonio Conte’s incredible records in the past two seasons, their formidable squad and their continual ability to grind down their opposition in matches with physical—as well as technical—power.
Yet they now have credible competition. Benitez has brought his A game to Italy this time, and Serie A is all the richer for it.