Rafael Benitez's Cup Gamble Pays Off as Napoli Close in on Silverware

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Rafael Benitez's Cup Gamble Pays Off as Napoli Close in on Silverware
Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

Diego Maradona has not forgotten how to make an entrance. The Argentinian returned to his old stomping ground on Wednesday night, making his first visit in nine years to Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo as his former club took on Roma in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final. 

He arrived at half-time, escorted by approximately 40 stewards to his place beside team owner Aurelio De Laurentiis in the stands. No sooner had Maradona sat down than he was back on his feet, celebrating a goal by his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain. It gave Napoli a 2-0 lead on the night and a 4-3 advantage on aggregate. 

It also prompted the stadium to launch into a familiar chant:

“Oh mamma, mamma, mamma.

Oh mamma, mamma, mamma.

Do you know why my heart is pounding?

I’ve seen Maradona.

I’ve seen Maradona.

And mamma, I’m in love.”

Salvatore Laporta/Associated Press/Associated Press
Maradona celebrates during Napoli's win over Roma.

Napoli went on to win 3-0, Jorginho adding the final goal just three minutes later. Their manager, Rafael Benitez, joked afterward that he had wanted to sign Maradona up to play in the game, noting that a man of such talents "always makes the difference."

The way the story was written in some of Thursday morning’s papers, you might have believed that El Pibe de Oro had decided the outcome even without setting foot on the pitch. La Gazzetta dello Sport’s front-page headline, via Football Italia, hailed the "Maradona effect." The paper carried more pictures of the former player than of the game itself.

Of course, we should not really attribute too much to the presence of a former player in the stands. Maradona, after all, was also present when Napoli lost 2-0 to Roma at the Stadio Olimpico last October.

Instead, the real credit for this triumph ought to go to Benitez himself. A week ago, the reports around Napoli were all doom and gloom, with prominent commentators (link in Italian) speculating that the manager’s time with the club might not even run beyond the end of this season. Benitez had expressed disappointment at Napoli's January transfer activity, while fans began to vent their frustration at the team’s failure to mount a serious title challenge.

There were echoes here of past misadventures. Benitez’s lament that Napoli “could have done better” with their new signings was compared to the final days of his stint at Inter in 2010, when he infamously demanded that Massimo Moratti either back him in the transfer market or simply let him go. The owner plumped for the latter option.

Likewise, Benitez’s rotation policy at Napoli was coming under scrutiny, just as it has at almost every stop in his professional career. Before the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final last week, he rested key players, including Higuain and Marek Hamsik, for his team’s Serie A visit to Atalanta. Napoli were duly thrashed 3-0 by opponents whose chief ambition for this season is simply to preserve their top-flight status. The result left Benitez’s side 15 points adrift of the league leaders, Juventus.  

And yet the manager's position was never as precarious as some might have presumed. Benitez retained a far stronger relationship with De Laurentiis than he had ever enjoyed with Moratti, and he acknowledged that his frustrations over recent transfer activity had less to do with any lack of support from his club than they did with the difficulty of persuading good players to move midseason. 

While Benitez certainly got things wrong against Atalanta, his team’s failure to mount a more credible title challenge must also be viewed in light of the remarkable campaign Juventus are having. The Bianconeri are on pace to finish this season with an extraordinary 99 points. 

In that context, it is easy to understand why Benitez might choose to focus his team’s energies on the cup. Of course, Napoli needed to be careful not to throw away their Champions League berth altogether, but fourth-place Fiorentina had also lost away to Cagliari on the day before Napoli’s Atalanta defeat.

None of that alters the fact that Benitez was taking a significant gamble. If Napoli had been eliminated by Roma anyway, then his rotation decisions would have become much more difficult to justify. As it is, they will be celebrated as a masterstroke.

After all, Napoli did not just beat Roma; they demolished them, scoring five goals in two legs against opponents who have thus far conceded just 11 in 22 Serie A fixtures. Not only did Benitez’s team seal their place in next month’s Coppa Italia final against Fiorentina, but they also may have secured some significant psychological gains ahead of their home league meeting with Roma in March.

Perhaps Maradona will return for that game given how much he seemed to enjoy this most recent visit. For now, though, Napoli will continue to rely on their manager for inspiration.

“I always go down at the end of the first half, because I am very interested to listen to the talks Benitez gives,” noted De Laurentiis at full-time on Wednesday. “They are interesting and informative. The lads listen to him. He is precise, a fury, a spectacle. I will film him one of these days.”

That is no idle threat from De Laurentiis, who produces movies in his life away from football. Napoli fans will be content for him to do as he chooses, so long as the next scene ends as happily as this one. 

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