Why Napoli Are Europe's Most Exciting Team to Watch Right Now

Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2017

NAPLES, ITALY - MAY 06: Coach of SSC Napoli Maurizio Sarri and player Marek Hamsik during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Cagliari Calcio at Stadio San Paolo on May 6, 2017 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)
Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

While the dominance of Juventus has overshadowed Italian football in recent seasons, anyone who regularly watches Serie A matches wouldn't single out the Bianconeri as the division's most entertaining side.

"We keep winning everything, but Napoli are a fantastic team," Andrea—a regular at Juve's Allianz Stadium—told Bleacher Report. “They pass the ball wonderfully well, and I really fear they could challenge us all the way this year, they're looking very dangerous after keeping all their best players this summer."

He's by no means alone. "Napoli are playing the most exciting brand of football in Europe right now," BT Sport commentator Adam Summerton told B/R. "Their stability, continuity and quality makes them a serious threat to Juventus for the title."

There are many reasons for this belief, but Andrea's point about retaining the squad's biggest stars is arguably foremost among them. Homegrown forward Lorenzo Insigne inked a new contract with the club back in April, while Dries Mertens followed suit just a month later.

"I'm more than happy after this event, as I dreamed since childhood of staying at this club and in this city for as long as possible," Insigne told reporters at a press conference to announce his extension. "I'm so happy and proud to renew my contract with Napoli, as I always dreamed of wearing this shirt and hope to never take it off. Now I hope we can win some trophies together, because the people of Naples deserve that joy."

President Aurelio De Laurentiis also showed he had been taught a harsh lesson following the departure of former idol Gonzalo Higuain, refusing to give his two stars buyout clauses similar to that which saw Napoli lose their former team-mate 12 months earlier.

"I was not in favour of the release clause after the Gonzalo Higuain mistake, but we learned from it, so there is a release clause on Dries' contract that is valid only for China," the club owner told Radio Kiss Kiss (h/t ESPN FC) after the Belgium international put pen to paper in May.

The Napoli squad is united like never before.
The Napoli squad is united like never before.FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/Getty Images

Like Mertens and Insigne, goalkeeper Pepe Reina, skipper Marek Hamsik and defender Kalidou Koulibaly also opted to stay to try to topple the Old Lady despite offers to move elsewhere.

The whole squad returned early for pre-season training, making no secret of their ambition as they worked harder than in previous years to prepare for the 2017/18 campaign.

"The Scudetto? This is a great group, we have to dream and make that an objective. We're all available to fight for this shirt," midfielder Amadou Diawara said in an interview with Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli (h/t Football Italia). "We're ready to give this gift to the city, we want to bring them this gift because the city deserves it!"

The players have proved their quality in recent seasons, and no side enjoys visiting the vociferous Stadio San Paolo.

Napoli fans make themselves heard, with Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (h/t Mark Jones of the Daily Mirror) noting the noise of 42,000 supporters chanting before a clash with Benfica last year caused tremors in the local area.

Outside the stadium is the beautiful city of Naples that Diawara was keen to highlight. While many dismiss it due to the crime rate and a poor reputation, the southern Italian area is one that warrants exploration, providing an atmosphere few others could hope to rival.

A bustling, loud, metropolis, there is so much more to it than many expect, as the Lonely Planet guide to Naples explained: "Beyond the grime, graffiti and occasional gruffness, you'll uncover a city of breathtaking frescoes, sculptures and panoramas, of unexpected elegance, of spontaneous conversations and profound humanity."

You will also find incredible food and a vast array of market stalls selling such a wide plethora of items that listing them here would be impossible. Perhaps the figurines of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un for your Christmas nativity scene shown in this tweet best explain the humour and quirkiness of the Neapolitan people:

Yet for all that passionate support, the vibrant city, the Scudetto pact and the wonderful interplay of Insigne, Mertens and Hamsik, it is perhaps coach Maurizio Sarri who remains the most important piece of Napoli's title dream.

Under his guidance, the side play the kind of football Italian sides typically shun. Passing the ball with confidence and style, only four teams in Europe have connected with more attempts per game this season, according to WhoScored.com.

Figures from the same source highlight just how different that is to the rest of Serie A, leading the league in terms of possession (59 per cent), pass success (87.2 per cent) and goals (94) last term.

That they also completed 5,131 passes more than anyone else in the division over 38 games is a staggering number, but this is not the same sterile possession we have seen from other teams in recent years.

"Every 20 years there is an innovation in football," Fabio Capello said in a speech at the Football Leader Awards in June (h/t Football Italia). "After Ajax there was Arrigo Sacchi's Milan, then Pep Guardiola, who rather sent football to sleep. Fortunately now we've got Sarri, who can wake football up again."

The former England manager is not alone is his admiration of the Tuscan boss, with the men Capello mentioned joining him in praising Napoli's undisputed leader.

"Sarri is the strength of the team; he is the director and author of the orchestra; all the players have improved under him," Sacchi told Marca (h/t ESPN FC) earlier this year. "When you see Sarri's teams play, you know how they train. He is a genius."

"I like to watch the teams who want to play," Guardiola said at a press conference after his Manchester City side were drawn in the same UEFA Champions League group as Sarri's men.

"In Italy, where the culture is defensive in the box, Napoli play 40 metres in front, a bit like Sacchi did once. With the ball, they are fantastic. For me, they are one of the three best teams right now in Europe at playing football."

Yet, while those great coaches have expressed their admiration for Sarri, perhaps even more telling is that players past and present also admire his work.

"I really like this Napoli. I like Sarri's philosophy and the desire of his team to always have the ball at their feet," former Spain international Xabi Alonso told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Goal). "Napoli are attacking and fearless. They have a clear mentality on the pitch, and I appreciate it."

It is easy to see why. A player such as Alonso would feel at home with the Napoli approach, and there is a growing feeling this is a team that will quickly start winning over casual fans as the campaign progresses.

Already in 2017/18, they have shown their now customary swagger and style, reaching the Champions League group stage with a 4-0 aggregate win over OGC Nice in addition to comfortable Serie A victories against Bologna and Verona.

Yet, it was perhaps the clash with Atalanta last month that hinted this could be their year. The Bergamaschi—who beat Napoli twice last season—jumped into a 1-0 lead after just 15 minutes at the San Paolo.

Re-emerging after half-time, Atalanta remained aggressive and pressed for a second goal, denied only by some fortunate saves from Reina. In previous years, the Partenopei may have crumbled under such relentless pressure, their notoriously weak mental approach repeatedly slowing their momentum.

Not this time. The side rallied themselves on the field, equalising with a Piotr Zielinski rocket before going ahead through Allan. Napoli would then cap their performance with a superb team goal (shown below), with the Brazilian midfielder releasing Jose Callejon, who rolled the ball to Mertens, the latter unselfishly squaring a pass to the advancing Marko Rog who made no mistake.

It was breathtaking stuff, and it was a triumph that meant so much more than three points, as Napoli fan Phil explained.

"I think this is the season when our mentality—our biggest hurdle—is finally strong," he told B/R. "That match against Atalanta was the perfect example: a goal down at half-time, we didn't panic and convincingly won 3-1. That confidence is going to help us be true title contenders."

It remains to be seen whether that is the case, but no matter if they finish top of the table or as runners-up again, there is no doubt Napoli remain an entertaining side and one you should find time to watch.