Rafa Benitez has transformed Napoli into the dark horses of the Champions League

Napoli's peerless start adds credence to Benitez's managerial ability, and his next aim will be to conquer the Champions League again as Brendon Netto explains
 Brendon Netto
 COMMENT | Champions League
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Several European teams had to undergo big changes with new managers being a common theme this season. The transition hasn’t been very smooth for many with the situation at Old Trafford in particular standing out while the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and to a certain extent Real Madrid have had a couple of bobbles as well.

Considering how things panned out at Inter Milan a few years ago, a fair deal of skepticism surrounded Rafa Benitez’s appointment as Napoli manager but the Spaniard is quickly reminding everyone why he was so highly-rated in the first place.

Walter Mazzarri did a great job in Naples over the past four years but Benitez is threatening to take things to the next level and Juventus will certainly be looking over their shoulders with the way Napoli have started this season. Mazzarri introduced the triple threat of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik, thereby moulding the team into one of the fiercest counter-attacking sides in Europe.

Lavezzi left for Paris Saint-Germain last summer and Cavani followed him to the French capital this year. However, Benitez used a large sum of the money garnered from the Uruguayan’s transfer fee to land Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon from Real Madrid while the arrival of Dries Mertens from PSV Eindhoven coupled with the development of Lorenzo Insigne, makes for a potent attacking line-up.

Old and new | The players have gelled well

The signings of Raul Albiol from Real Madrid as well as Pepe Reina on loan from Liverpool have strengthened the defense too which has made the team a well-rounded unit, precisely why they’re stronger than ever. The manner in which they’ve used Cavani’s transfer fee to bring in four or five quality players is not too dissimilar to Tottenham Hotspur’s contingency plan after losing Gareth Bale.

The striker’s departure was initially viewed as a major blow to the club but in a way, Higuain may be better suited to lead the line as Benitez leaves the quick-fire counter-attacking style behind in favour of a more cultured approach. They are more inclined to keeping the ball and working an opening which was evident in their Champions League game against Borussia Dortmund where they enjoyed 59 percent of possession.

Higuain is a better fit for Benitez's style of play

Napoli operated with three center-backs under Mazzarri in a 3-4-2-1 formation but Benitez has implemented a 4-2-3-1 system instead. The change in formation moves to incorporate new players like Callejon and Mertens but it’s also benefitted wing-backs Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga who look surprisingly comfortable as conventional full-backs. With Higuain as the focal point in attack, the likes of Insigne, Hamsik and Callejon have the freedom to explore the space in behind him.

Benitez deserves the plaudits he’s attracting at the moment and to his credit, he’s gone about his business quietly. He hasn’t engaged in a war of words with anyone, he hasn’t boasted about his side’s form and he’s kept the Napoli camp very happy so far.

Benitez is a man on a mission

His attempts at the infamous mind-games that certain managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho reveled in has never been his cup of tea and he now seems content with proving his tactical nous and competence as a manager by letting his team do the talking for him.

Despite a hostile reception from the Chelsea fans when he took over at Stamford Bridge on an interim basis last season, he managed to salvage what was turning out to be a disastrous season for the Blues. Not only did he secure them a Champions League spot but he also landed the Europa League trophy without having the luxury of dipping into the transfer market – an impressive feat considering he took on a dysfunctional club at its lowest point in recent years, a team Mourinho is still trying to sort out despite the help of a few new signings.

In their last Champions League outing against Dortmund, Napoli proved that they can take down the best in the continent. Their next task is to take on an Arsenal side who are currently top of the Premier League. The Gunners’ form spells danger for the Italians but Benitez has instilled in them discipline and solidarity to go with their attacking verve. It’s that transformation into a more complete side that renders them dark horses in this year’s tournament.

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