Napoli look the best in Europe

WEEK-BY-WEEK, people are getting increasingly excited about Napoli and their goalscoring antics, and little wonder, for they have opened up an eight-point lead at the top of Serie A and they also walked through their Champions League group, scoring goals for fun. For the first time in years, a club that hasn’t won Serie A since the days of Diego Maradona is being talked of as realistic scudetto winners. This could certainly be their time for Juventus are struggling by their own standards and Inter and AC Milan are not quite clicking as they should. If nothing else, Napoli look the most exciting team in Europe, but they could also be the most functional at this precise moment.

The club’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, believes the current team is the best he has seen in his time in charge. He was actually criticised for selling players like Kalidou Koulibaly (€ 40 million to Chelsea), David Ospina, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne in the summer, all of whom were in their 30s and Fabián Ruiz was sold to Paris Saint-Germain for € 25 million. Simultaneously, they also acquired some very promising talent, notably Georgian forward Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has caught the attention of every major club in Europe after his first few months at Napoli.

The pundits claim Kvaratskhelia is the most exciting player to arrive in Serie A since Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus in 2018, and they might be right. Napoli fans were hoping that Pablo Dybala was heading to the club from Juve, but he opted to join Roma, but Kvaradona, as he is affectionately known, has made them forget their disappointment. In the summer, sports director Cristiano Giuntoli got busy and nine players were brought in, either on permanent deals or via loan arrangements.

The response from some of the new boys has largely been impressive, with Luciano Spalletti’s side playing crisp, attacking football. The way they dismantled Liverpool in the Champions League raised many eyebrows, but they also scored prolifically against Ajax and Rangers in the group stage. They now face Eintracht Frankfurt in the round of 16, a tie they can look forward to with some degree of confidence.

Napoli have also benefitted from the form of the powerful Victor Osimhen, who has scored nine Serie A goals in 11 games, including a hat-trick against Sassuolo. The club’s biggest problem may be working out how to keep the Nigerian striker when the transfer window opens.

Napoli Serie A results 2022-23

Home  Away 
2. MonzaW4-0 1.VeronaW5-2
4. LecceD1-1 3. FiorentinaD0-0
6. SpeziaW1-0 5. LazioW2-1
8. TorinoW3-1 7. AC MilanW2-1
10.BolognaW3-2 9. CremoneseW4-1
12.SassuoloW4-0 11.RomaW1-0
14.EmpoliW2-0 13.AtalantaW2-1
15.UdineseW3-2   

Napoli also have some strength in depth up front in the form of Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone, while the fresh impetus at the club seems to have been the catalyst for the rejuvenation of players like midfielder Stanislav Lobotka. Huge South Korean defender Kim Min-jae, who was signed from Fenerbahce for € 18 million, and Juan Jesus, who joined on a permanent basis from Roma after a loan period, have also been starring in defence.

Spalletti, who is from Tuscany, is a curious character, driving around Napoli in a modest Fiat Panda rather than a conspicuous statement on wheels. After leaving Inter, he spent two years on his farm, concentrating on olive oil and wine production. In addition, his self-imposed sabbatical gave him the chance to reassess his approach to the game. He’s never been short of would-be employers and has coached eight Italian clubs, including Roma, Inter and Napoli, and also spent four and a half years with Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg.

Napoli have gone close to winning Serie A over the past decade, but lacked the staying power to keep up with Juventus and also lost their nerve when they were leading the pack. The summer clear-out was arguably a big positive for the club as it enabled them to create something of a blank canvas to mount a title challenge in 2022-23. The opportunity is real as the big northern clubs are not at their strongest while Napoli appear to have bought very well in the close season. It will be 33 years since their last scudetto, so the big prize is long overdue, and don’t rule out a prolonged Champions League campaign.

UEFA Champions League Preview: 11 places still up for grabs

ONLY FIVE teams have qualified so far for the last 16: Bayern, Bruges, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Napoli. So, there’s plenty to play for in matchday five and there could be a couple of high profile clubs finding their way to the Europa League.

Group A: Ajax – Liverpool; Napoli – Rangers.

Ajax, for all their European heritage, are almost out of the competition, although they will probably qualify for the Europa League. Liverpool, despite a stuttering start to the season in the Premier, thought they were finding their form when they beat Manchester City, but they had another setback and lost 1-0 against struggling Nottingham Forest. A draw for Liverpool in Amsterdam will send them through to the next stage. Napoli have already qualified, they are currently the most exciting team in Europe and their performances in Serie A and the Champions League have been impressive. Sadly, Rangers have looked out of their depth and their 7-1 humbling at home to Liverpool really summed up their experience this season.

Group B: Club Brugge – Porto; Atlético Madrid – Bayer Leverkusen

Bruges were one of the first teams to qualify for the knockout phase after winning three of their first four games. They are only the third Belgian team to reach the last 16 this century, Anderlecht (2000-01) and Gent (2015-16) were the others. Their opponents, Porto, need a win to keep some space between themselves and Atlético Madrid, but the second place in the group is likely to be decided by the meeting between these two teams on November 1 in Portugal. Leverkusen have been disappointing this season, both at home and in the Champions League, although they did beat Atlético in the last matchday.

Group C: Inter Milan – Viktoria Plzn; Barcelona – Bayern Munich

Barcelona went perilously close to elimination in the last group game against Inter, which ended 3-3. Inter know that a win against Plzn will put Barca out, regardless of how they face against group leaders Bayern. There has been much angst in Barcelona since the game with Inter, with concerns about their financial situation should they fail to qualify for the last 16. Barca have also lost ground in La Liga, despite the goals of Robert Lewandowski. Bayern, who have qualified, have been impressive in Europe, winning all four of their games and averaging three goals per game, while conceding just two goals.

Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt – Marseille; Tottenham – Sporting Lisbon

Anyone could still qualify from this group, but victories for Marseille and Tottenham could take both through. Frankfurt were unlucky to lose 3-2 at Tottenham, but they bounced back with a five-goal performance in the Bundesliga against Leverkusen. Marseille have been going well but were beaten by title rivals in France, Paris Saint-Germain. Spurs’ early season effervescence has lost a little of its fizz, with defeats against Arsenal and Manchester United, but they are still upbeat. They are particularly strong at home.

Group E: Red Bull Salzburg – Chelsea; Dinamo Zagreb – AC Milan.

This group remains quite open but the fifth matchday should start to sort things out. Chelsea, leaders of the group, are in good form under new boss Graham Potter, although their last two games have been disappointing with draws against Brentford and Manchester United. Salzburg, league leaders in Austria, faced second-placed Sturm Graz. They are still unbeaten in the Champions League group. AC Milan and Zagreb are still in the mix but a win for either will knock the loser out of contention. Milan are still chasing leaders Napoli at home and have lost just once in Serie A.

Group F: Celtic – Shakhtar Donetsk; RB Leipzig – Real Madrid.

Celtic are out of the competition, but still have feint hopes of finishing third and qualifying for the Europa League. Shakhtar, who should be too strong for them, would probably keep themselves in contention with a win in Glasgow. They recently beat big rivals Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Premier League, but everything is overshadowed by the war with Russia. RB Leipzig have turned their season around in recent weeks and have won five of their last six games. Their two wins against Celtic in the group have revitalised their Champions League campaign. Real Madrid will be a tough task as they are unbeaten in La Liga and recently beat Barcelona in El Clasico, followed by a 3-1 win against Sevilla.

Group G: Sevilla – FC Copenhagen; Borussia Dortmund – Manchester City

This round of matches will effectively be the group leadership decider and the Europa League qualifier. Dortmund host City with the top two places up for grabs. City were beaten for the first time this season when they went down 1-0 at Liverpool, but they returned to winning ways against Brighton. Liverpool prevented Erling Haaland from scoring, but the huge Norwegian will be keen to score against his old club. Dortmund, who came through two table-topping games with Bayern and Union with just one point to show for their efforts, know a win will secure their place in the last 16. Sevilla have picked up in the past few games and should be too good for a Copenhagen side who struggle to win games, although they did achieve a credible draw with City in their last Champions League fixture.

Group H: Benfica – Juventus; Paris Saint-Germain – Maccabi Haifa

Benfica have enjoyed their Champions League campaign so far and are within touching distance of the last 16. Juventus, by contrast, are almost out, although a win in Lisbon will delay the ignominy of an early exit. Juve were beaten 2-0 in their last group game in Haifa, but won the Turin derby afterwards and beat Emploi 4-0 at the weekend. Speculation is still rife about the future of coach Max Allegri. Benfica warmed up for this game with a big clash against Porto. PSG should win against Maccabi Haifa and followed up their 1-1 draw with Benfica with a 1-0 victory against old rivals Olympique Marseille. PSG may be distracted due to the continued talk of Kylian Mbappe moving in January and there are also rumours about Lionel Messi returning to Barcelona.