In January 2005, former Serie A champions Napoli found themselves in the third tier of Italian football as a result of financial mismanagement. Years of bad business practice, stemming back to the halcyon days that saw Diego Maradona lift the southern club to the highest of highs, had left them ruined.
With their debts estimated at up to €70 million, film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis was forced to start anew in Serie C1.
Despite playing so far down the league pyramid, they maintained a higher average attendances than most top-flight clubs, even seeing 51,000 attend one game. In order to get back to the top, the new president appointed a little-known coach named Edy Reja to lead them, and they never looked back.
A season later, playing a 3-5-2 formation, they topped the division and secured their passage to Serie B just as the Calciopoli scandal hit. The team instantly found themselves in a much tougher division. Reja’s tactics and De Laurentiis’ backing would prove too much at that level, and the club earned its second consecutive promotion, finishing behind only a star-studded Juventus squad.
Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi arrived, and their added quality allowed Napoli to surprise many, finishing in eighth place in the Serie A standings. Eventually Reja would leave, but by the time Roberto Donadoni arrived in March 2009, the tactical framework was entrenched, and the former Milan star would try to continue making it work for the Partenopei.
He lasted just over six months, replaced in October that same year by Walter Mazzarri. He too would persist with the back three, making a slight shift to 3-4-2-1 with Hamsik and Lavezzi just behind a central striker. Initially, Fabio Quagliarella would fill that role until summer 2010, when the club invested a total of €17 million to bring Edinson Cavani to the Stadio San Paolo.
Having spent three seasons with Palermo, the Uruguayan knew the league well, but he had scored just 34 goals in 109 Serie A appearances for the Rosanero. Yet, much like Reja before him, Cavani would revolutionise Napoli and prove that fee to be a gross underestimation of just how good he could be.
The club would finish in third place—its highest finish since the days of El Diego—as their new idol netted 33 goals in his debut campaign. The next two seasons would bring more of the same, and by last summer they had twice qualified for the Champions League, with Cavani netting 104 goals in three years.
Both he and coach Walter Mazzarri decided it was time to move on, with the coach joining Inter while Paris Saint-Germain spent around €64.5 million to bring the 26-year-old striker to France. De Laurentiis would not blink, bringing Rafael Benitez to the club and reinvesting the money he had received in a whole raft of new players.
The experienced Spanish coach was a clear break with the past and above all with the back three. His trademark 4-2-3-1 took some time to implement, but the team are now playing extremely well. Sitting just behind Juventus and Roma, they have separated themselves from the pack to retain a tight grip on the much-coveted Champions League place.
Breaking from the framework and goal scorer responsible for the rebirth of the proud club was jarring, but the performances of Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens are quickly making supporters forget both. That trio have 24 league goals between them, and with Hamsik missing much of the campaign injured, they are the leading stars in an excellent season.
The mini-revolution has not been without its casualties, most notably hometown captain Paolo Cannavaro, who seemingly has no part to play in Benitez’ back four. Still, there are no complaints. The former Liverpool boss has drawn parallels between the Reds and Napoli, from the passionate local support to the expectations that comes with it.
He has not disappointed them either, recording comprehensive 4-2 victories over both Lazio and Inter last month. They are hugely significant, as the former has forced the Rome-based club to part ways with Vladimir Petkovic and appoint Reja to lead them, meaning the 68-year-old should be back at the San Paolo later this year.
The win over the Nerazzurri was even more poignant, as Benitez and his new-look team embarrassed Mazzarri’s new side, while the Spanish coach exacted sweet revenge over another of his former employers.
“This victory is dedicated to the fans and the Neapolitans who particularly need this kind of satisfaction,” De Laurentiis told Sky Italia (via Football Italia). “This victory represents the fruits of our labour. It crowns the hard work we all started in 2004.”
In truth, it’s very much a new look Napoli this year, and that is down to Rafael Benitez and the owner’s belief in him.