For the first seven rounds of this season’s Serie A, the Azzurri from Naples collected a magnanimous 19 points from a possible 21. Standing tall, neck to neck with defending champions Juventus for a moment it felt like the peninsula had seen the birth of a new rivalry for the top slot that included none of the Milanese giants anymore but Walter Mazzari’s counter-attacking unit set to challenge the Bianconeri till the very end.
But then came the loss at the Juventus stadium and since then everything has been on a downward spiral for the Partenopei who have not only collected a meager 14 points from their next nine league games but have also lost considerable ground in the title race that has gone back to being just a ‘dream’ for the fans once again!
The problems didn’t seem to have ended right there.
Off the pitch the club was only last week slapped with a fine and an additional two points docked with captain Paolo Cannavaro banned from the game for six months. Just a couple points, one may argue. But in a league where the battle for the crucial Champions League spot for next season is being fought by no less than five other teams that include the likes of Inter, AC Milan and AS Roma, the two points could just prove to be the difference when it matters at the end of the season.
|Paolo Cannavaro (R) has been banned for failing to report Matteo Gianello's (L) fixing incident|
Having successfully lifted a trophy for the first time last May in over two decades since the Scudetto back in the 1989-90 season with the great Diego Maradona, their dream of defending the Coppa Italia next summer was quashed after crashing out in the round of 16 at the hands of Bologna who made it two on two against the Azzurri in less than a week.
The big question that Walter Mazzari and his troops should then be asking themselves is what now once the Serie A heads off for a winter break after this weekend’s round of matches?
Should they re-assess their goals which were overblown in all honesty since the start of the season?
With Inter, Fiorentina, Lazio, Milan and Roma showing no signs of giving up on the race for the two Champions League spots behind Juventus, would it wise to leave aside the Europa League for once and concentrate solely on the league ?
It’s time to be a little realistic and everyone at the club probably knows that.
Yes, they impressed one and all and were like the cool new kids who stole the limelight from their more affluent and glamorous rivals in Europe. Yes, they capped off a memorable season with the Coppa Italia defeating the Bianconeri of all teams in May and yes, they started the current campaign with much aplomb. But all the talks about the Scudetto challenge aside, truth be told, if you have a thin squad you can only go so far.
The Azzurri have one of the best first XI in Italy, no doubt about that. They have thrilled one and all with their flair and superb counter-attacking style of football. But what about the reserve artillery?
With a shocking average age of over 29, in a time where the whole country has finally started to realize the importance of youth as the only way forward, this squad is one of the oldest in the league. Their defence has been their weak link for a long time always clueless against aerial threats, as was most evident at the Stamford Bridge last season where they threw over a 3-1 first leg advantage over the eventual champions, and with an average age of over 30, its almost baffling that out of the seven central defenders only two are under thirty with one of them - Miguel Britos already on the wrong side of the twenties.
Juventus play a similar system, but their midfield is so powerful that it makes sure the defence has to do the least amount of work as possible week in week out which cuts down the back three’s work rate by leaps and bounds. Also with Mauricio Isla, Martin Caceres and Paolo De Ceglie, the engines on the wings of the five-man midfield is very well covered.
This is one area where Napoli are lacking and that will haunt them as the season starts to get more complicated with non-stop fixtures until the end of the season in May once the winter break is over. Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga are again one of the bests in the business of marauding up and down the entire length of either wing but at some point they need to be rested which so far has not been the case, atleast when it comes to the Italian international who at 30, is not getting any younger. Pablo Armero is almost certain to leave Udinese this January but with Milan and Juventus vying for the Colombian's signature, it will be difficult for Mazzari to land the best available wingback in the mercato.
With Juventus almost certain to run away with the title, with or without the star striker they have been pursuing since forever, it’s important for the Blues to solely focus on atleast a third place finish as anything less than that might just cut short their rise as one of the bigger teams in the Serie A.
Pegged down to fifth thanks to the docked points, how things have changed in less than a month when they were almost challenging for the title. Things are different now.
The recent resurgence of Milan and Roma means the big duo is within four and two points respectively of Napoli and with both clubs more stable financially as compared to the most successful club in Southern Italy, it may all of a sudden be all the more difficult than it was easy just last month.
With Fiorentina steady under Vicenzo Montella and the trio of Inter, Roma and Milan expected to strengthen over the winter transfer window, the Partenopei find themselves competing against a very strong quartet as opposed to the comfort of finishing second behind Juventus with the rest scrambling for the only left Champions League spot at the beginning of the season.
Not to forget Lazio, who are currently sitting third but may face the same difficulties as the Naples-based side due to a thin squad of their own but can certainly not be counted out of the race as they have shown all season.
Captain Paolo Cannavaro has been banned until June, Edinson Cavani is without fail linked to an exit with every defeat and Marek Hamsik will soon join him to play more regularly in Europe's top competition.
|Napoli risk losing stars Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani if they finish out of the top three|
Lorenzo Insigne has been a bright spot showing a lot of promise having also made his international debut, but it’s the constant fear of losing Edinson Cavani and the failure to replace the Uruguay international that will worry club president Aurelio De Laurentiis the most, and if at all they fail to reach the biggest stage of European football for a second year running the club risks facing a constant spell amongst the Europa League regulars. It will also almost certainly end Hamsik’s association with the club.
Inter, Roma and Milan are bound to get stronger next summer having already hit rock bottom with their own pet programs for restructuring themselves but it's clubs like Fiorentina, Lazio and Napoli who despite showing a lot of promise may still have to pay the price for not being able to keep pace with the big boys.
Historically, Napoli have always lost their way around the month of April and that’s largely due to a tiring squad and lack of bench strength to provide ample cover. With this season proving out to be more competitive than the previous ones as a whole, Walter Mazzari really needs to pull up his socks and make sure the team goes into the winter break with a win against lowly Siena who just had a change in the managerial seat last week.
Come the first week of January, and a difficult tie against Roma to start with and there will be no time for the team to pick themselves up. Couple that with the added overhead of the Europa League - a trophy they would like to lift but may have to give up to keep the squad together.
The rise of the fourth most loved team in Italy has been more than a fairytale over the past five years or so and the next sixth months might just be the most gruesome test both for the players and fans as they face the reality of top flight club football.
After all these years, it seems like a bit of character and not that extra flair will come handy.
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