By Kris Voakes
It really wasn’t meant to be this way.
To many, Juventus’ clash with AC Milan a fortnight ago was to represent the biggest game of the opening Serie A rounds, while the Bianconeri's meeting with Napoli in November had also caught most people’s eye. A laugh of incredulity would have been the appropriate response to anyone suggesting during the summer that Friday night’s match between Roma and the Partenopei would pit the best two teams in Italy against each other.
Following the sales of Erik Lamela, Pablo Daniel Osvaldo and Marquinhos, nobody could have foreseen the Giallorossi beginning the season so well, while down in Naples many expected the Azzurri to take time to adapt to life without Edinson Cavani. Instead, the new revolutions taking place at the two clubs have become quickfire revelations.
|ROMA ON RUDI...
"Rudi Garcia did very well to bring the team back together after we had so much mud thrown at us over the last few months. He worked on us psychologically and gave us back our confidence. The squad understood his style of football and the results are clear."
"Rudi Garcia came in and improved everything that wasn’t working."
“He is a proven winner with a great football mind who we believe fits in perfectly with our vision for the future.”
"He will continue to develop our existing talent base while giving us the best opportunity to win now."
CEO Italo Zanzi
In the capital, Rudi Garcia has made a faultless start to his reign, knitting together the youth of Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic and Alessandro Florenzi with the experience of Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Douglas Maicon. Following failed projects under Luis Enrique and Zdenek Zeman, the Giallorossi board have finally brought in a coach who appears to be the perfect fit for the club.
With a keen eye on fluid, attacking football using attacking full-backs, a dynamic and destructive midfield and a forward line of pace, directness and finishing ability, the Frenchman made a huge success of his time at Lille. His philosophy has needed only the most minor of tweaks in order to get the best out of Roma’s squad.
The acquisition of talents such as Mehdi Benatia and Strootman have been a massive boon, while Gervinho’s signing owed much to Garcia’s insistence that the Ivorian could again be the player he was in the 49-year-old’s successful Lille squad. The question mark which remains now is in regards to his ability to retain his winning touch. Third and sixth-place finishes followed LOSC’s 2011 title win, but Roma’s American owners will hope that whatever happens this season the curve that follows will be upward.
While another title in Italy remains a long shot at this early stage of the season, Garcia has brought a real feel-good factor back to Roma, and the same can be said of Rafa Benitez down the A1. Of course, Napoli finished second last term and have been there or thereabouts for the last few seasons, but there is a renewed belief in the Aurelio De Laurentiis project as a result of the Spaniard’s arrival.
Benitez | Overcame the loss of Edinson Cavani to remodel a new Napoli
When the film producer took over at the San Paolo in 2004, he talked of having two five-year plans. The first was aimed at getting the club up from Serie C1 to a safe seat in Serie A, and was achieved with something to spare. The next five years were reserved for challenging for a title and other major honours, which has already arguably happened with their second and third place finishes of recent seasons coupled with a decent Champions League run two seasons ago and, crucially, a Coppa Italia success in 2012.
|NAPOLI ON RAFA...
"I do not want Benitez to have regrets for having bet on me. I came here because I liked the project and to win and I think we can strive to achieve this."
"We must remain humble and follow the Benitez way. I like the style; we play with the ball on the floor and this gives me confidence. Benitez has given us a winning mentality and I sacrifice myself with pleasure to contribute defensively."
"Benitez has brought a winning mentality to this group and this is very important for us."
"He is a man of great international experience. A leader."
Aurelio De Laurentiis
However, Benitez represents the beginning of a new phase to De Laurentiis’ masterplan. At Valencia, he won two league titles before leaving for Liverpool and reaching two Champions League finals, winning one. Other major trophies followed at Inter and Chelsea despite various difficulties in those shortened stays.
In the 53-year-old, Napoli have a winner. The last nine years have seen the Partenopei collect fans here, there and everywhere, but what De Laurentiis really wants now is trophies, and few have the kind of track record for delivering in that capacity that Benitez has.
The introductions of Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol owed much to Benitez, but he has also given Lorenzo Insigne the opportunity to stamp his genial authority on the side too. He may have a keen eye on the tactical side of the game, but he has also shown a propensity for giving flair players their wings. That will go down particularly well with Napoli fans, who will rightly expect their club to win trophies under the Spaniard, if not this season then sometime soon. With De Laurentiis warmer in his seat than James Pallotta at Roma and with three years as a challenger under his belt, it is only natural that his club appear more ready to compete in the longer term.
But will either of these sides pip Juventus to the post? Will they be good enough even to hold off the attentions of Fiorentina, Inter and even Milan to the Champions League berths? Only time will tell, but right now they deserve their positions at one and two in the standings. Neither club has won anything yet, but Italian football owes a debt of gratitude to both for the breath of fresh air that they represent. Friday’s game should be a cracker, and long may it continue.