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Returning Faouzi Ghoulam reminding Napoli how good he is

11:20 PM IST 12/12/18
Faouzi Ghoulam Napoli
The Algerian full-back has endured a disappointing year, but is fit again and served notice of his return against Frosinone

COMMENT    By Solace Chukwu     Follow on Twitter

After 80 minutes at San Paolo on Saturday, it was decided that Marek Hamsik, midfield general and all-time top goalscorer for Napoli, had put in a shift, and was due to be relieved. 

There was, however, one last duty for the Slovakia international to perform on the day, a gesture steeped in warmth and significance: he handed the captain's armband to Faouzi Ghoulam, before crossing the chalk. 

On the surface of it, there is little to remark upon in the passing of the armband before a substitution. A 4-0 home win over hapless Frosinone would not require a second glance either. It was a special day, however, for Ghoulam, making his first appearance for Napoli in 13 months. 

It was on November 11, 2017 that the Algeria international ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in a Champions League game against Manchester City. Up until that point, it had appeared the world was at his feet: the 27-year-old's reputation, rising all the time, had made him one of most sought-after full-backs in Europe. 

There is a cruel irony in that, at the time, he had been earmarked as a potential replacement for Benjamin Mendy at the Etihad Stadium. His first audition, as it were, was an impressive one, as Pep Guardiola's men found themselves unable to deal with his runs down the left flank. Napoli lost 2-1, giving their wealthier opponents a real scare, and food for thought for the return leg. 

That promise never materialized, even though the Italian side started brightly on their home patch. It seemed almost as though, once Ghoulam went off on the half-hour mark, a certain bravery and resolve departed from them.

Napoli had been in the lead when he went off; they would lose 4-2. 

However, it seemed there would be some respite, as the player underwent surgery and seemed set to return ahead of schedule. Tragedy struck again though: in February, having been back in training for less than a fortnight, Ghoulam suffered a broken kneecap, and his season effectively came to an end. 

In that 13-month period, Ghoulam watched from the sidelines as Napoli led the Serie A in Italy for the majority of the season, recording a landmark away win over Juventus, before capitulating and blowing the title in disappointing fashion in the final month. 

He also witnessed a change in the dugout as a consequence of that, with former boss Maurizio Sarri departing for Chelsea and former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti taking the reins in his stead. 

Safe to say there has been a lot of upheaval, and in that light, perhaps the most impressive thing about the Algeria international at the weekend was that he played as though he had never left. This was the same Ghoulam – different system, different year, different manager, but the same marauding full-back with a beguiling left foot. 

He twice assisted striker Arkadiusz Milik, a kinship of the previously infirm, as it were (both having spent a significant swathe of last season on the treatment table); the first with a whipped corner which the Pole headed in at the near post, and the second with ball across the area to be turned in at the far post. 

Two assists paint a fine picture, but not a full one: it was his corner that prompted mayhem in the Frosinone penalty area and led to the opening goal, and he might have scored himself, stealing around the back of the visitors' defence to poke Adam Ounas' glorious pass just over the top.

Four of eight crosses completed, seven ball recoveries and an 89% pass completion are further threads to the tapestry of the risen Ghoulam. 

Faouzi Ghoulam | 2018-19 Serie A stats

With Ancelotti favouring rotation, in stark contrast to Sarri's aversion to it, Ghoulam will no doubt be eased gradually back into the fray, and he only played for the final 20 minutes as Napoli bowed out of the Champions League at the hands of Liverpool on Tuesday.

It is a shame that the league seems to have gone, so impressive has been Juventus' start; with Ghoulam's return, Napoli have an upgrade on the willing but limited Mario Rui, and are set for a stirring second half of the season.  

It is unlikely to be enough though, not for an ambitious Napoli and not for Ancelotti.

For Ghoulam, however, it will be enough that he is finally back to showing just how good he can be.