The Season BeginsBy: Neil | August 23rd, 2013
On Sunday Napoli start their 2013-14 adventure with a home match against mid-table Bologna. A very good opening fixture if you ask me. Last season Bologna finished in 13th and they are much better than a relegation candidate so Napoli will have to be on their game. It’s also a chance at revenge from last season when Bologna beat Napoli twice at the San Paolo, first in the Coppa Italia and then days later in Serie A. It was Napoli’s only home loss of the Serie A season. Bologna’s manager Stefano Pioli has always managed well against Napoli, and seems to have Mazzarri’s tactical scheme figured out. Now he’ll face a different manager in Benitez, and a very different Napoli on the field. How have the offseason moves changed Napoli? Find out after the jump.
If you ask me selling Cavani for $64 million and then buying Higuain for $37 million is a great move. Ultimately I think Cavani is the better striker, and under different circumstances I would have wanted him to play for Napoli the rest of his career. But for Napoli to come out of that situation $27m euros richer, and with a striker of Higuain’s pedigree is only a good thing. Of course there will be lots of pressure on Higuain as he is easily Napoli’s most expensive player ever purchased. But he has scored regularly at every level he’s played and the goals should be there this season. But will they be as timely and as decisive as Cavani’s?
The other end of Napoli’s formation was given a facelift with De Sanctis and Rosati leaving and the comination of Rafael and Pepe Reina arriving. De Sanctis has had his critics at Napoli, especially over the last season when he wasn’t at his best. But overall he served Napoli quite well and in the Champions League two seasons ago he proved he was a worthy backup to Buffon at the international level. His style is slightly erratic but over the last few years he bailed Napoli out of many difficult situations, and he was a large part of Napoli finishing in the top 6 for four straight years.
The arrival of Pepe Reina on loan is an upgrade. Not only is Reina an equally good shot stopper, he controls the ball better and his movement around the box is more carefully orchestrated. In a World Cup year Reina will be eager to retain his spot as one of Spain’s 3 keepers, a chance he might not have received at Liverpool thanks to the emergence of Belgium’s Simon Mignolet. Reina is on a one year loan deal, but if Liverpool don’t reach the Europa/Champions League this season they may be looking to offload him on a permanent basis simply to save money. Rafael should get plenty of playing time as he is secured for future seasons unlike Reina.
It’s difficult to know what Napoli’s back four will look like. Raul Albiol was brough in from Real Madrid, but can he play well enough to break up the Cannavaro Britos partnership in the middle? Benitez has three central defenders to choose from, and he will not be afraid to tinker to see which partnership works the best. And there’s also three outside defenders for two spots: Maggio, Zuniga, and Armero. Maggio should be preferred on the right, leaving the Colombians to battle it out on the left. Zuniga is better defensively while Armero is better at going upfield and creating offence. Look for Zuniga to get the bulk of the playing time in what is almost ceratinly his final season at Napoli. As I’m writing this the rumours are still circulating that Benitez will bring in another central defender. A move for Hamsik’s Slovakia teammate Martin Skrtel was rejected by Liverpool, while Napoli is also considering Arsenal’s injured defender Thomas Vermaelen.
I won’t go over the midfield all that much as it’s pretty much the same as last season: three Swiss players compete for two spots in the middle, while Insigne and Hamsik will drive Napoli’s offence from the three quarters line. Callejon and Pandev will battle it out for the right wing spot, while Mertens begins life at Napoli as a sub for either Hamsik or Insigne.
In the pre-season Napoli looked good but not great playing against bigger clubs like Galatasaray, Arsenal, Porto, and Benfica. The structure is there for a run at the Scudetto, but having so many new players could be yet another obstacle to catching Juventus, who have been clearly superior in Italy for two straight seasons now. Then there’s the AC Milan threat, as Allegri’s team was one of the best in Italy after the Christmas break last season. Outsiders include Fiorentina and Roma, but apart from these five teams I can’t see anyone else reaching the top. Lazio and Mazzarri’s Inter will be competitive, but they will have to surprise to reach the Champions League. Udinese took a shock 3-1 home loss to Liberec in the Europa League and I think their magical run is over – their core players are getting older and too often have to sell talented players like Benatia they would rather keep.
So here’s my prediction for the top Serie A teams this season. Once all is said and done we can see how foolish I was. But for now it’s OK to dream of someone other than Juventus winning the scudetto.
1. AC Milan
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