Weekly Podium: Gold: Napoli
In this week’s Weekly Podium, Napoli take top prize for rewriting history, while David Moyes gets the brick for his team's embarrassing display at the Etihad. Eric Krakauer takes a snapshot of the best and worst in European football.
I can’t imagine employee productivity being very high in Naples this week, as historic achievements usually make for slow dissipating blissful stupors.
And what a week it was.
In just a matter of days, Napoli accomplished two feats that were over twenty years in the making. On Wednesday, the Partenopei defeated German opposition in a UEFA competition for the first time in twenty-four years when they collected three points against Dortmund in the Champions League. Only four days later, Rafael Benitez’ team scalped AC Milan at the San Siro. The last time Napoli managed that, Diego Maradona was on the club’s books, and a crestfallen Tom Cruise was clutching Goose’s dog tags in every movie theatre in America.
Neither feat was particularly astonishing; especially after the club splurged almost one hundred million dollars on new players. Napoli was expected to make some waves. Nevertheless, few would have predicted that Benitez would have been able to so quickly build a team that looks destined to not only challenge for the Scudetto, but could also shock its way into the latter stages of the Champions League.
Since arriving at the San Paolo, Benitez has completely changed the tactical system that allowed Walter Mazzarri to reestablish Napoli as one of the top clubs in Italy – shifting from a 3-5-2 to a 4-2-3-1. Players usually require some time to adapt to that type of change, but if anything, Benitez’ game plan has actually benefitted the players that already did so well under their former manager. Marek Hamsik is a perfect example. With two defensive minded midfielders behind him (usually Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami), the Slovak has less defensive duties, and more attacking freedom. His early season goal tally suggests that Hamsik will score more goals than in previous years – a good sign considering Cavani was sold to PSG – and will take some pressure away from Gonzalo Higuain. Not that the Argentine seems to be feeling any. Save for his little boating accident, Higuain’s adaptation has been seamless.
Benitez’ early success at Napoli is well deserved. His unceremonious departure from Chelsea was an unwarranted black eye given what he achieved at the club, and could have easily derailed the Spaniard’s coaching career.
As it stands, Benitez will forever be associated with a week that will long be celebrated by Napoli fans. And it is quite fitting that it was Benitez who guided Napoli to its first win against AC Milan at the San Siro in almost twenty-seven years. He does seem to have a penchant for beating the Rossoneri. Just think back to Istanbul in 2005.