It is the day that the dress rehearsal becomes the gala performance. A full 12 days before Napoli’s Serie A campaign starts with an away trip to Genoa, Rafa Benitez’s side begin to shape their destiny of their fledgling season as Athletic Bilbao arrive at the Stadio San Paolo for a Champions League play-off.
Such a high stakes tie is probably not what the former Liverpool boss would ideally want at this stage of preparation, with transfers still in the pipeline and peak form yet to be attained. Yet Napoli and Benitez have no choice. They have to be ready, knowing a false step could put a hugely negative spin on their season before it has really begun.
As the reckoning approaches, Napoli are on a tightrope; not just because of the huge importance of the tie with Athletic, but due to their overall situation. Just over a year into his reign, Benitez’s record is generally positive, having landed the team in Serie A’s third spot and won the Coppa Italia (the latter in difficult and emotional circumstances as violence outside the stadium caused delays to the final in Rome).
There is also a feeling, however, that Napoli might be letting an opportunity pass them by. The imperious Juventus suddenly look slightly vulnerable in the wake of Antonio Conte’s departure and with his replacement Massimiliano Allegri facing a battle to convince the public of his worth. It is imperative for Juve’s rivals to start the season strongly and make life difficult for the champions.
Whether Napoli are in a position to do so is a subject for some debate. It has been a quiet transfer window, and while nobody could accuse president Aurelio De Laurentiis of not putting his hand in his pocket in the past, there are a few key areas of the team that need strengthening, as Benitez well knows.
In a defence which the coach successfully commuted from a three to a four last season, there will be responsibility for the imposing centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, a rare fresh arrival but making a big step up from Genk and Belgium’s Jupiler League.
The main area of concern is midfield, where Gokhan Inler continues to map out the play but has long since needed an enforcer next to him. Benitez has tried for a series of candidates, including Yann M’Vila (who joined Inter this summer) and Radja Nainggolan, who joined Roma instead.
If there is a source of fan frustration, then the Nainggolan deal distils it. Roma have been very positive in building on their own excellent campaign last year, with arrivals including Juan Manuel Iturbe and England’s Ashley Cole. Theirs is a sense of unbridled positivity, a feeling that has been in the air since Nainggolan (and Michel Bastos) chose the Olimpico ahead of the San Paolo in January.
There is no better place to take out that frustration than in this crucial Champions League tie. One wouldn’t say that Napoli have something to prove in the competition, but they certainly have an itch to scratch after last season’s narrow failure to qualify for the last 16.
It beggared belief—having taken 12 points from a devilishly tough group containing Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and Marseille, they were eliminated at the last by Kevin Grosskreutz’s goal for the Bundesliga side in Marseille, at the same time as the Partenopei were beating the Gunners.
Nevertheless Napoli proved in that group that they could reach considerable heights. In some senses, one could argue they are stronger than they were last December, with the left-back Faouzi Ghoulam, midfielder Jorginho and loanee Michu all on board.
Now is the time for deed, though, rather than theory. By setting the foundation for their season against Athletic, Napoli can give themselves the momentum to match a vibrant Roma when Serie A begins at the end of the month.