After an uneventful break, we’re back in early January with a home game to play against eleventh-placed Udinese. It’s nearly time for the January transfer window, and a number of my first team players are attracting admiring glances from elsewhere. Here’s a quick look at who’s wanted and what I think (very briefly) of the possibility of them leaving.
It should be a heresy to consider letting Mertens go, but on my mind are his high wages, the chance to make a quick buck, his age and the need to bring Osimhen more to the fore. Fabian’s new contract appears to have shooed away his many suitors, but as long as his good form continues I expect the vultures to start circling again before too long.
I name the strongest available eleven for the Friulians, which I shouldn’t require but to my mind they’re a stronger opponent than they probably are in reality. Their captain is Italian forward, Kevin Lasagna, one of a select group of footballers named after food (like former Boro striker Massimo Maccarone). He hasn’t scored once this season, a fact that always worries me. Gerard Deulofeu is also here, on loan from Watford, as is Rolando Mandragora, a much-loved midfielder from my FM20 playing days – seriously, I loved him, in fact I affectionately knew him as the Mandragorian, but there’s no love here. He’s on the opposition books. Death to him. A pox on his house. Along with Di Lorenzo, who’s still got up to three weeks of absence, I’ve lost Alex Meret for a week or so, courtesy of a gashed leg sustained. Ospina starts.
This one’s played at half pace, as though everyone is still on holiday in their heads. Luckily for us Udinese aren’t very good. They might line up similarly to Inter, with banks of three centre-backs and midfielders, but the quality isn’t present and when Fabian volleys one in after fourteen minutes there’s the feeling that we can do this without shifting up the gears. Dries Mertens scores from the spot early in the second half when Kalidou Koulibaly is barrelled over during a free kick, before the latter makes it 3-0 with a headed goal, powering over his two markers to drive his shot home. The only real downside is a gashed leg sustained by Politano, which will keep him out for a week.
The transfer window opens. Given how stretched our budgets are my view is that if we get to the end of it with exactly the same players as we have now then I will consider it to have been a successful one.
In the meantime, we have two away games over a few days. The first is against Parma, anchored in the table’s lower half, and showcasing the talents of former Arsenal forward Gervinho. As if demonstrating the old cliché that you can’t win them all, we contrive to draw 0-0, a stilted performance in attack where we pepper Colombi’s goal with shots but never cross the line. Fabian comes closest, a lashed strike from outside the area that crashes off the post, but elsewhere nothing goes right for us. The best opportunity of all might fall to Gervinho. As Parma clear a corner, he’s left on the ball, haring towards our goal with defenders racing to catch up with him. Ospina, alert and advancing from his line to clear the African’s shot, saves our bacon.
Benevento are next. They’re based near to us, so this is a bit like a Neapolitan derby, except their history until very recently was in Italy’s lower reaches and all their rivals are from the country’s hinterland – Avellina, Nocerino, Salernitana, and the like. I like the witch logo on their badge, the fact they’re nicknamed the Sorcerers, the accompanying hope that they won’t conjure anything from this tie. Among their ranks is Roberto Insigne, the younger brother of our own Lorenzo and once upon a time on our books. We set out to attack from the start, to blow them away, make up for the Parma shortfall, and by half-time we’re 3-0 up. Riccardo Orsolini and a Mertens brace have caused the damage. The Sorcerers reply without magic but with plenty of violence, culminating in Bryan Dabo’s second half dismissal for one mucky challenge too many. Victor Osimhen caps off a fine afternoon’s work with a late strike and the emphatic qualities of a 4-0 away win.
Our attention turns now to the Italian Cup, the trophy of which Napoli are the proud custodians. We open with what should be a routine First Round match, against Cittadella, who are one of only two Serie B teams remaining. We’re expected to win with little fuss, though former Blue Gianfranco Zola pops up on the media to warn me about Frank Tsadjout, a Milan forward who’s on loan with the Citta. Di Lorenzo is still about a week away from being able to play in this one. Mario Rui is suspended. I see it as an opportunity to pitch in my Europa League side, the second stringers. Andrea Petagna gets his first start under me, playing as a target man.
It isn’t great. With the visitors happy to spoil and break things up in front of a cavernous, quarter-full stadium we finally score just before half-time, when Petagna’s defence splitter of a pass finds Hirving Lozano piling through on the left, the winger guiding his shot into the top corner. Petagna adds a second of his own after the break to secure the victory. Cittadella rack up one shot on goal, plus the causing of an injury when a clumsy challenge on Grimaldo robs us of his services for two months with a thigh muscle. Due to Mario Rui’s suspension we have to move Hysaj to the left and bring Koulibaly on, which at least makes us even more defensively tight. The Quarter Final produces an infinitely tougher fixture when we will go to the San Siro to take on AC Milan.
From the ridiculous to the sublime. We’re in Milan for the Super Cup Final, in which the cup winners (ourselves) take on serial league victors, Juventus. This time around they have Paulo Dybala back and playing in the striker role, ahead of Cristiano and Chiesa. That’s pretty frightening, however as in our league meeting they’re lumpier than I might have expected. A third minute Koulibaly header that hits the bar defines this one. We have a lot of shots, but Szczesny is at his shot-stopping finest and the woodwork is also on the opposition’s side. That is until about ten minutes before the break, when Riccardo Orsolini collects Zielinski’s assist and fires us into the lead. Juve’s second-half comeback surprisingly amounts to little. Our illustrious rivals seem content to foul and give away free-kicks, one of which nearly gifts us a second when the keeper parries Insigne’s late effort with his fingertips. We emerge with the win, my first trophy as Napoli manager, and a further £1.82 million banked.
Back to the meat and drink of the league, and a journey all the way up the leg of Italy to face Sampdoria. Until late December La Samp were managed by Claudio Ranieri, an appointment that has always struck me as the roll of a dice – will you get the wise old head who wins the Premier League with an unfancied team, or the other Ranieri, who stands on the touchline looking all at sea while his team flounders? Sacked with the side bottom, they’ve since thrown their lot in with Roberto D’Aversa, the man responsible for getting Parma promoted. Their leading light is Fabio Quagliarella, now a sprightly 38 and still entrusted with finding the goals. Unlike that other greybeard Zlatan, the aging Italian looks as though he is at last beginning to dry up, which in part explains their problems.
In any event, a decent (on paper) forward line of Quagliarella, Gabbiadini and Candreva is utterly neutralised by our defence as we walk home with a 2-0 win. Kalidou Koulibaly heads past Audero from a corner in the first half; Matteo Politano secures the points midway through the second. A sound, professional effort, only sullied by Bakayoko’s dismissal for a second yellow. It’s the Frenchman’s second sending off this season, two times too many as far as I am concerned.
One of the lovely contrivances of Football Manager scheduling is that it can frequently put together consecutive games against the same team. We now have two lovely away games against AC Milan, for me perhaps the toughest side we have faced this season. I’m at a loss to know exactly why this is. Maybe we’re just especially evenly matched, or possibly the presence of Zlatan as a Joker in the pack gives them a kind of psychological advantage. Certainly, there’s nothing fun about trying to cope with a 39 year old self-appointed king of the world, someone who in a league career spanning 612 games has scored 390 goals. Only Barcelona stands on his record as a failure, and even at the Camp Nou he achieved a better than one-in-two record. His bad times count as anyone else’s wild successes.
In the league match, the Swedish legend doesn’t score, thanks mainly to a man-marking job, yet in an even contest punctuated by good defending from both sides it’s centre-back Simon Kjaer who has the final word. His headed goal, barrelled in from a Hakan corner, makes the difference and hands me my first defeat of the campaign. We finish with the more impressive xG, but what does that matter when it isn’t accompanied with the points? Can we claim to have lost the game but won the argument?
What a joy it is to play them again in the Italian Cup, probably the more important of the two as we are charged with making the final. Once more I am faced to name a very strong line-up, and as before the confrontation is deadly and very, very even. Both sides produce the same number of shots, Mertens doing a better job of testing Donnarumma than Osimhen ever did in the league tie but with nothing to show for it. Regular time finishes 0-0, then there’s the slow burning torture of extra-time, the pleasure of seeing my players run themselves into the ground. Kjaer is excellent for them at the back, and Tonali and Kessie represent nothing less than a red wall ahead of their defence. Penalties ensue. Zlatan of course slots home, but Kessie and Hakan mess their efforts up and we score all four to claim the tie.
A two-legged affair against Udinese is our reward, because of course what we really need is more football amidst a packed schedule. If we get past them then the final will see us take on either Juve or Inter. There’s still time to squeeze out one more league match. A home fixture with Torino seems like a gentle finish to the month after the terrors of Zlatan, and if the action is laboured here then it’s probably a consequence of fatigue. Victor Osimhen makes up for his anonymity at the San Siro by scoring a peach here, and then we have the wherewithal to hold our Turinese visitors at arm’s length. 1-0 will do. The game is watched by 33,116 supporters, around three-fifths of the stadium’s capacity, and that seems like our average for fixtures where the opposition is not illustrious. Still, it’s a disappointment that this isn’t better, considering where we are in the table. If being top of the tree isn’t enough to drag Neapolitans out to support their local side then I don’t know what is. We need their patronage.
At the end of it all, we have held on to our ten-point lead, opening the sort of buffer zone that will hopefully be enough ultimately to see us cross the line in first place.