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

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.

How much for the Nerazzurri? Inter Milan for sale

AFTER two years of speculation about the future, Inter Milan’s owner, the Chinese retailer Suning, is looking for fresh investment which may come in the form of a partial or complete sale of the club. According to media reports, Suning have engaged the US boutique Raine Group and Goldman Sachs to find a possible buyer. The former was recently involved in the € 2.5 billion auction of Chelsea FC, while Goldman Sachs are frequently involved in financings with major football clubs.

The writing has been on the wall for some time after Suning ran into financial trouble and were eventually bailed-out by a deal with Alibaba in China. They also filled a funding gap at Inter by borrowing US$ 275 million from Oaktree Capital and returned Inter to the bond market. Inter’s problems meant that people like Antonio Conte decided not to stick around and he left after he had led Inter to their first scudetto since 2010 in 2021.

How much would Inter cost? Valuations vary but the club in its entirety should cost around € 1.2 billion. There will be no shortage of potential buyers, from the Moroccan hedge fund investor Marc Lasry to any number of US businessmen who are becoming increasingly enamoured with Italian football, even though the game comes with certain limitations that include modest TV income – € 230 million per year for Serie A – and a need for expensive stadium upgrades.

There is also talk of Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of INEOS who had an eye on Chelsea, and the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund that owns Newcastle United, having an interest. Italian football, for so long regarded as being parochial from a business perspective, has become more global, with only four Serie A clubs still owned by family groups – Udinese, Atalanta, Lazio and Napoli.

While Steven Zhang, Inter’s chairman, has repeatedly denied he wanted to sell-up, there are suggestions that the Chinese government, tiring of the great football project perhaps, are forcing Suning to dispose of the club.

A rebalancing, coming soon after the rebranding project, could help Inter out of their current predicament. In the past three seasons, they have lost almost € 500 million, including € 140 million in 2021-22. The last time they made a profit was in 2014. Their revenues topped € 350 million, but 74% of that went on wages. The club has also high levels of net debt – € 374 million in 2021. Suning have suggested they would be prepared to inject € 100 million into the club in the next year, but that was before they started scanning the market.

Inter need to sell players for high fees in order to bolster their income, but in 2021, their profit from this stream was negligible. The year before, they had made € 62 million and over five years, the profit on player sales totalled almost € 200 million. European football is also a prerequisite for their business model – this season they have a particularly tough Champions League group that includes Bayern Munich and Barcelona.

Inter’s balance sheet looks better than their domestic rivals, Juventus, who made an enormous loss in 2021-22. But there was some controversy in the Italian media when Lazio’s sporting director, Igli Tare, who claimed that Inter, AC Milan and Juventus were technically bankrupt but would not be allowed to go under because they were systemic clubs and Italian football could not function without them.

Any new owner will surely be impressed by the new stadium being planned with AC Milan to replace the iconic San Siro. The financial benefits of the new arena will surely transform the finances of Inter and the rossoneri and make both clubs more competitive on the European stage. Inter’s name carries plenty of weight, but the Milan duo have fallen way behind Europe’s elite clubs. With the right backing, that could change.