By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
In 2011, Milan and Inter were the best two teams in Italy. The Rossoneri had just denied their city rivals their sixth straight Scudetto and had their eyes on the one player everybody in the nation seemed to want. His name was Marek Hamsik.
"He costs €100 million,” his Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis told the Corriere dello Sport as the Hamsik saga reached its most fervent during that memorable summer of three years ago.
“But, if I really do have to sell Hamsik, I’d give him to Inter. Adriano Galliani never asked me for him, whereas Massimo Moratti did and was very polite about it.
“He asked me three years ago for Hamsik, then two months ago enquired if anything had changed. I replied no, but I was impressed by his attitude.”
Yet despite their best intentions, neither Milanese side managed to close a deal on the Slovakian, with De Laurentiis’ asking price proving to be around €50m more than what either were willing to pay for the attacking midfielder.
And as the Napoli president witnessed the latest in a string of underwhelming performances from Hamsik as the Azzurri had to settle for a 1-1 home draw with Athletic Bilbao in the Champions League play-off first leg on Tuesday, he must surely have wondered what might have happened had he cashed in when he could have.
The last three years have largely seen Hamsik stagnate (see stats below from last season). Once the partner-in-crime for Ezequiel Lavezzi, he is now the emblem of what Napoli are missing rather than one of the icons of their positivity.
At 27, he should be blossoming ahead of the peak years of his career but instead looks at a loose end at the head of Rafa Benitez’s midfield, and Tuesday’s draw typified many of his performances in recent seasons.
Not only did he go missing at key moments, he also failed to show his face when Napoli needed some leadership and direction from the centre of the field. What’s more, he couldn’t hit the target when well placed early on and then took the ball out of the path of the onrushing Jose Callejon, favouring an awkward hook shot with his back to goal that was never going to trouble Gorka Iraizoz.
It wasn’t long before Athletic made Napoli pay for such wasted opportunities, with Iker Muniain slotting home calmly from a low cut-back by Oscar De Marcos following a fabulous run down the right by the full-back.
The Italian side hit back midway through the second half. Gonzalo Higuain took down a directionless chipped pass from Hamsik and did superbly well to make something of it, ghosting past two defenders before firing past Iraizoz.
And they should have taken the lead soon after, but Jose Callejon contrived to fire wide after doing all the hard work to leave Iraizoz on the turf after racing through to beat the offside trap.
Napoli went close again later in the game, but a victory would have been scandalous given the flow of play for much of the match. And it was that failure to do more from their great opportunities early in the piece that left them looking lost for ideas and direction.
Jorginho looks like a fine addition to the midfield, but with Walter Gargano always more industrious than artistic they need more from their skipper just in front of them. If anything, Napoli looked far more dangerous after Hamsik was replaced by Michu with 13 minutes to go.
If De Laurentiis is ever going to be proven right for valuing Hamsik so highly, the ex-Brescia man has to become the player of 2011 again sooner rather than later. Next Wednesday in Bilbao would be a good time to start.Follow Kris Voakes on