Glory Hunter – Napoli: March 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Twelve fixtures remain in Serie A, three of which will be played in March as the international break cuts into the schedule. As it has been for much of the campaign the title’s destination remains a tightly poised affair. We’re in control of our destiny. Win them all and there’s nothing anyone can do, but Juventus are lurking on our coattails to take advantage of any slip-ups. We’ve conceded four fewer goals than them, however they have scored eight more, and this may end up counting when it comes to the final analysis, even though ultimately I believe we will be sorted on how we have performed against each other. Score a victory at the San Paolo against them and it will matter.

A key week in our destiny opens with an away day at AC Milan. The Rossoneri have been disappointing and sit in tenth place, however they did well against us in 2020/21 and have just appointed a new manager in Luis Enrique. Who knows how he will line them up…? The Old Lady is entertaining Benevento in Turin, which ought to result in a thwacking, but instead they’re forced to a 1-1 stalemate, sluggishly conceding a late equaliser by centre-back Nikolaos Michelis. I’d be happy with a draw at the San Siro.

Victor Osimhen puts us in front after seventeen minutes, a placed shot from twenty-one yards out arising from Tonali’s assist and something special to beat a keeper as good as Donnarumma. It’s the striker’s tenth of the season, a statistic with which I’m a little disappointed. Milan try to haul themselves back into it after this, putting together some lovely passing moves that force us to be at our best to defy them, even though they’re starting Batshuayi and it’s a bit like dealing with the potency of a soft kitten. Early in the second period Enrique gets this and replaces the Belgian with Zlatan. Even in his mid-seventies and with all the pace of an old banger that I remember once owning with affection, he is by far the trickier opponent, using all his wiles to make life hard for my defenders. But we hold. Calhanoglu is suspended for the home side, which makes our lives easier, and late on Matteo Politano nets from a direct free-kick to guarantee the points.

We aren’t at our best in the San Siro. Our set-piece play is particularly disappointing, corner kicks that are ordinarily such a steady source of goals invariably being broken up and sparking opposition counters. The implication here is that Milan are a lot better than their league position. Thankfully, we have completed our games against them now. I suspect they will end the season strongly.

Before entertaining Juve we are completing the Zenit St Petersburg tie, one that is wide open after we played out a 0-0 in Russia. We should get through, indeed we need to as the board expects us to reach the Quarter-Final, however it looks as though we might just mess it up when Martin Merquelanz scores from a counter-attack, classically after breaking up a Napoli corner. I switch our focus to an attacking one and then watch as Piotr Zielinski then puts on a rare show of his outstanding brilliance. The Pole scores two and makes another, Lorenzo Insigne and Victor Osimhen finding the back to the net to seal an emphatic 4-1 win. All good stuff, though Zielinski’s superb display makes me a little depressed that he gets to strut his funky stuff so infrequently.

Beating Zenit adds £8.68 million to the coffers, and now we have to wait another week for the other ties to be played and then to learn who we’ll be facing next. At this stage, any draw involves difficult times, but I would prefer to avoid Bayern or Liverpool, if the gods of football would be so kind.

The scouts are falling over each other to recommend Pedro, a 24 year old Brazilian striker who currently plays for Flamengo. Wanted by Chelsea and Manchester City, and netting twenty from twenty-four appearances in 20/21, he’s considered to be the next big thing in the sort of delirious tones that they once reserved for the likes of Adriano and Pato. Even better is his availability, the possibility that he will cost less than £20 million, and in my mind is our vacancy in attack. Schick has gone. Edouard is here on loan and with a (very, very, very) remote possibility that he will become a permanent addition, so the simply named Pedro Guilherme Abreu dos Santos might just fit the bill. Other prospects, who wouldn’t cost more than a small nation’s GDP, include Gabriel Barbosa (also at FLA), Sebastiano Esposito (Inter unlikely to sell one of their brightest prospects), Karim Benzema (golden oldie who is leaving on a free in the summer) and Lyon’s Moussa Dembele (with doubts that he would add anything that we lack currently).

Bayern see off Juventus in their tie, meaning all that latter now have to play for is the league. Our game against the Old Lady at the weekend is my one hundredth in charge of the Partenopei, a milestone that doesn’t mean very much, but I have an 80% win percentage to maintain and victory at the San Paolo would be priceless. I’m warned to keep tabs on Ronaldo (thanks for that, Dr Obvious), though obviously the high-scoring legend is only the most illustrious within a series of attacking options that are straight out of the top drawer.

We’ve already beaten them in the Coppa Italia, a tie decided at home when the Old Lady didn’t even get going until the match was largely beyond them, and they do the same here. This one is decided by good concentration levels. A couple of our early moves that are broken up and lead to near misses resolve our minds. We keep good possession, remain patient in looking for openings while the players work hard to put themselves into space. Victor Osimhen opens for us. Before the half is out Matteo Politano (clear choice for man of the match) has us two-up, a lead we never look like losing. Juve are strangely toothless. Ronaldo is closely watched by Di Lorenzo. Dybala comes on and does nothing, possibly thinking about his potential move to Manchester United. They seem content to collect bookings and for Cuadrado to get himself removed with an ankle injury. Danilo comes on, which is no one’s idea of a poor substitution, but on the whole Juve are rubbish. This is an important victory. There are ten games left to play, and we have an eight-point lead.

Lazio’s defeat to Chelsea means we are the only Italian side left in the Champions League. Things here suddenly become very serious. We are drawn against Liverpool, which is rough enough, but in the unlikely event we prevail here then Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain awaits in the Semi-Final. The Pool might be third in the Premier League, eight points distant of Man You who are sailing away with the title, but they remain a formidable side to plan for. The dream may very well end here.

We’re travelling to Hellas Verona ahead of the international calendar, which will wrap up our March schedule. Juve demolish Udinese to sustain the pressure. After downing the Old Lady and Milan, this game feels like the softer one, but it’s in exactly these scenarios that we tend to take our eyes off the ball. Concentration, please. You’ve dealt with Ronaldo; Nikola Kalinic should be easy enough in contrast.

Verona are torn apart, deconstructed surgically, but you wouldn’t know it from the scoreline, which is the classic 1-0 to the Napoli. Lorenzo Insigne bags our first-half goal in another impressive outing for the talisman, and Orsolini also comes in for praise, which he deserves after playing well to show Mancini – who’s dropped him from the Italy squad – that’s he’s worth it. The home team go into fouling mode, getting in the way and felling whoever happens to be getting the better of them, and they do enough to keep us from causing any further damage. Garcia gets a second, which is quickly called back for offside, a decision made on inches.

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Not that it really matters. We’ve retained our lead over the Old Lady, and we can now finish no lower than fifth. One more victory – hopefully over SPAL after the internationals are done with – and Champions League football in 2022/23 will be guaranteed.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: February 2022

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

It’s Juventus at home in the cup first, and with an away day at Cittadella to follow at the weekend I choose this as my fixture for which to select the best eleven. Before any of that happens I am asked to register my changes for the rest of the Champions League. It’s not possible to include Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian was brought in as ballast and there simply isn’t the space to add him, however his youth means he can play in Italy without the need for labyrinthine registration rules.

Clearly, the Coppa Italia is a massive deal for us. Win it and I can leave Italy, or at least look for jobs in other countries so that the Glory Hunter challenge can be progressed. I like it in Napoli, despite the club’s resources, which have to be spread rather thinly and occasionally involve making some difficult decisions e.g. the fans aren’t putting the flags out over my decision to let Mertens go, and when I consider what Schick did in his role instead, I have to concede that they have a point. Anyway, it’s a competition that really matters, and at some point we will have to get past Juventus along the way. Will this be the time…?

Despite a clear lack of match fitness Odsonne Edouard is selected to start against Juventus. It’s this that I think contributes to a middling performance – it’s never easy to make your debut in a climate like this, not with Bonucci and De Ligt keeping an eye on you – but he wins an early free-kick, from which Eric Garcia heads beyond Szczesny. A humiliating moment for the Pole, who gets his fingertips to the shot but can only parry it further into his own net. Juve’s front four of Ronaldo, Dybala, Kulusevski and Morata is terrifying, but the former takes a knock thanks to the close attentions of Di Lorenzo and is forced off. This brings on Chiesa, hardly a terrible change for them, yet still they can’t pierce our goal.

Pressing deeper in the second half, we are able to hurt them on the break. We get a corner, which results in a second Garcia headed goal, almost an identical one to his first. Later still, a counter-attack sees Politano pump the ball forward to Gabriel Martinelli, who’s on for Edouard and is dashing through the visitors’ defence. A glorious shot into the top corner makes it 3-0, which is fantastic way to finish the tie.

Going to Turin and prevailing will no doubt be a challenge, however we’ve given ourselves a fine cushion and hopefully we can do it. In the other tie, Lazio put three past Inter and will take an identical scoreline to ourselves over to the Giuseppe Meazza. This result does much to raise morale in the camp. The game was played before a capacity crowd and the supporters are chuffed with what they’ve seen. There’s a renewed spring in our step as we head towards the away game against Cittadella at the weekend.

Juve beat Sampdoria, so once again there’s a requirement on us to produce. Jeremie Boga makes the starting line-up so that I can rest Insigne for the Old Lady rematch. Boga’s fellow Africans, Koulibaly and Osimhen, are returned to us following their Cup of Nations exploits. Neither comes back with an especially good tale. Nigeria were beaten by Togo in the Semi-Final and then lost the subsequent third-place playoff. The Togolese went one step better, winning the Final 2-1 against Kouli’s Senegal team. The beaten finalists have every right to be disappointed. They were pre-tournament favourites, and to lose at the last hurdle is sickening. Neither returnee is fit enough to make the starting line-up against Cittadella but they are named on the bench. It’s good to be able to call upon an almost fully able side once again. Now, only Lozano – out for up to a further three weeks – is unavailable.

Unless we put six past Cittadella I’m going to get pelters from the media here. We actually win 2-0, a fairly straightforward display of power in which I get to see the best and the worst from Jeremie Boga. The move in which he scores starts when he passes to a home defender. Dashing back to pinch possession back, he then gets himself into position to slot home the goal that puts us in front. Very much later on, Kostas Manolas scores from a free-kick, and it’s done. A routine victory; perhaps not the show of dazzling football that everyone hopes to see from us, but a strong outing that maintains the pressure on Juve. One of us will crack eventually, but who?

At Juventus Stadium we are helped by the home team opting not to really try until the second half. The best chances fall to us, and while we fail to score I’m happy enough for things to remain at 0-0. After the break Pochettino’s rocket up their backsides results in a more positive display; still nothing to show for it though, and some stiff defensive work sees us safely over the line. We’ll take on Lazio in the Final, after they produce a 1-1 draw with Internazionale. Though the venue for the May showpiece is a neutral one, by unhappy chance the Olimpico has been pre-selected, meaning we will need to win at Lazio’s home ground.

Still, all that’s a concern for another day. It’s straight back to league commitments for us, and a home draw against Brescia. In the relegation zone and routinely suffering nosebleeds whenever they enter the opposition half, this should be straightforward, and it is when we emerge from a 6-0 shellacking. We’re one-up in the first couple of minutes after a messy goalmouth scramble sees the luckless Jesse Joronen poke the ball over his own goal-line. Victor Osimhen scores from close range soon after that, and before the break Gaetano Castrovilli nets directly from a twenty-five yard free-kick. Odsonne Edouard replaces Osimhen at half-time to build on his match fitness and scores his first two for Napoli, before Fabian caps off the victory with a bullet shot from distance. It’s a great all-round performance, a morale-booster, and even the hard-pressed Partenopei board claim to be happy with this showing.

The good news keeps on coming, as we thrill to Roma’s 2-0 victory over Juventus later that evening. Edin Dzeko’s brace causes the damage. We’ve regained the edge in Serie A. Elsewhere, Uncle Carlo is sacked by Milan after leading them to tenth place. This prompts me to look at the available jobs out there – Fulham and Sevilla, neither of which especially appeals. With any luck, we can clinch the Coppa and then I will be able to look at vacancies more seriously.

In midweek our thoughts turn to Europe, our Champions League tie with Zenit St Petersburg. The evening before, Juve lose again, a 3-1 home reverse against Bayern – are they beginning to crack? We’re in Mother Russia, unsure of what to expect against the team from their capital. They field a pair of former Premier League centre-backs – Dejan Lovren and Davinson Sanchez – and their star man is Sardar Azmoun, an Iranian international striker who has reaped twelve goals from thirteen league appearances. We also need to pay our respects to midfielder Daler Kuzyaev, a tough box to box presence; the scouts rate him very highly, and he seems to be their beating heart, a highly determined presence.

The game is played in near-freezing conditions. Sheets of sleet welcome us into the Saint Petersburg Stadium, and it’s perhaps this – being removed from our preferred climes of Mediterranean loveliness – that blunts our attacking spark. Lots of shots, not many of them on target, our best chances coming from set-piece headers that Manolas and Koulibaly fail to put away. At the other end the anticipated clash between Meret and Azmoun turns out to be over-hyped, in reality not much a factor. It’s 0-0, a scoreline I would normally be upset about but I am able to tell the players that they were unlucky rather than not good enough. We’ll complete the round in early March.

We cough up first place at the weekend, when we’re playing in Genoa. It all seems to be going well early in the second period when Insigne fires in a dramatic cross that Odsonne Edouard powers into the net. Minutes later, Insigne wins a dubious penalty, but his shot is parried into touch by the keeper. This ends up being decisive, when a late equaliser from Prince-Desir Gouano serves as a decisive body blow. Surprisingly, the defender who misses his challenge and allows the scoring opportunity is Koulibaly, who’s about as reliable as we can ever get. I guess anyone can have a day off, even the best of them, but it matters as our efforts to pummel Genoa back down fail to produce a breakthrough and we have to accept a 1-1 result.

Our catch-up game is away to Torino. They’re now in nineteenth place, the implication being that Andrea Belotti made all the difference and, without him, they’re toothless. Last season’s league leading scorer is now with Liverpool and has made a pale handful of appearances, maintaining a decent rate of converting his chances but far from the unstoppable force that he was in Turin. After Genoa I’m keen for us to make amends and we do, putting four unanswered goals past the opposition and generating a further slew of chances. Eljif Elmas, who is hankering after a new contract, scores early. Riccardo Orsolini gets a brace, one of his better ‘running everywhere at once’ showings, and Lorenzo Insigne pads out his personal account with a nice, close range finish. As a consequence of this one, we pay Bologna £3.7 million, a clause in the deal that landed Orsolini into our laps. It’s his fiftieth Napoli appearance, and he’s been splendid.

We’re back in first place and there’s a need to retain it, with Lazio at home completing the month. We’re able to name Lozano on our bench for this one. The Mexican hasn’t taken part since December, when he was in fine fettle for us. I think we will need his versatility and scouring nous before the campaign is done. Lazio are in third place, a long, long way off the pace but gaining points at a fine rate of around two per game and in Luis Alberto showcase an unimpeachable star. Milinkovic-Savic, Correa and Immobile constitute further attacking talent, but hopefully they are less capable at the back.

As it is Simone Inzaghi seems to sense his own side’s deficiencies by fielding an overly defensive formation. Three centre-backs, two wing-backs and a defensive midfielder, with Correa and Immobile set out as remote figures in attack. The channels to their front two aren’t obvious, and we are able to cut them off with some ease while putting two past Strakosha to win the day. A brilliantly worked move finds Riccardo Orsolini’s shot clipping the post before going in, and later Kostas Manolas heads beyond the keeper from an Insigne corner to complete the victory. The Romans are tricky opposition, so to prevail here is really important.

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Luis Enrique is named as the new Milan boss. We’ll take them on next weekend. Juve put five past Torino to maintain the pressure and ensure that we need to get a good result at the San Siro. For the time being, we can be happy with a three-point lead in the division. It’s been hard fought. We will play our main rivals for the trophy in March, a fixture that is looking increasingly decisive in the destination of this season’s title.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: January 2022 Part 2

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

The month wraps up with two away league ties before Udinese at home. The first is against Benevento, trapped in nineteenth and with only SPAL keeping them from the absolute bottom. I fend off a transfer bid from Guangzhou for Lobotka, who will need to feature in this one as Tonali is suspended. Playing in their weird yellow stadium, with palm trees invitingly just outside, the first half is far from a classic. When Politano is playing as disinterestedly as he does here, you know this is going to be a motivational challenge. He ends up being subbed off for Riccardo Orsolini, who scores soon after. Then Riccardo Saponara is dismissed for a horrific tackle, and the fragile floodgates quickly open. Lorenzo Insigne scores. Stanislav Lobotka unleashes a howitzer from outside the area that is far too powerful for Montipo to stop, and finally a fine first for Gabriel Martinelli. It finishes 4-0. Given the statistics – all in our favour – it’s what we deserve. Benevento have half their players booked in a showing where they are simply unable to cope.

An infinitely tougher challenge comes in midweek when we’re at Gewiss Stadium to play Atalanta. Sixth in the table and not far from our level, I’d normally be happy by escaping with a draw, however Juve beat Cagliari the day before so we need to win in order to retain first place. It’s the Atalanta manager’s birthday. We help him celebrate by being poor in the first half, coughing up possession and struggling to cope with their counter-attacks. Nevertheless, it’s still goalless at the break, and things seem to be going according to plan when Matteo Politano gives us the lead via a close-range finish. But the home team don’t deserve to be behind, and more or less resent their way back up the field to equalise, a cracker from Remo Freuler that Meret can’t do a thing to stop. After that we try to rouse ourselves back into the action. Normally at this stage we can ease off, swap out tired players in readiness for the next match, but all we can do here is flood forward and conjure a winner. Which we do not get. Neither does our play justify one. Despite finishing the stronger side, 1-1 is a fair final score.

Patrik Schick has been in poor form since being handed the start at striker in Osimhen’s absence. The fans know it. I know it, and I think the player does too. We chat about it and he insists that he can improve. The Nigerian is still contesting the African Cup of Nations, alongside Koulibaly and Boga. As they all play for strong teams each one has made it to the Quarter-Final stage, however the Super Eagles are tied against Cote D’Ivoire so I should have at least one of those players back before too long. As for Koulibaly, we don’t actually miss him so badly. Eric Garcia is playing so well in his absence and improving at such a rate that all appears to be going well at the back. Who knew?

The Czech striker is bad again in our home tie with Udinese. These games are typically low-scoring, needling affairs, but he’s especially anonymous, as though terrified of making a mistake so produces next to nothing instead. He’s off at half-time. Lorenzo Insigne both gets tackled to win a penalty and scores from the spot-kick to give us the lead, and that’s what makes the difference. The visitors are unable to threaten, and we look happy enough at 1-0, though it’s a tired effort generally that makes us look as though we are ready to concede Serie A to Juventus.

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Sure enough, the Old Lady emerges from their away day at Sassuolo with a powerful 3-0 victory. Their range of attacking options is simply terrifying, and it’s something we will have to be ready to cope with as we face them in the Coppa Italia next. At least we’ll have Jeremie Boga back; the Ivory Coast winger is returned to us following their loss to Nigeria. For obvious reasons, I would have preferred Osimhen instead.

Coming to the close of the transfer window, I resolve to do something about the striker situation. Schick hasn’t worked out, this much is clear. He was a gamble and I based part of my attempt to sign him on the basis that he was once very good for me in Football Manager 2018. I can’t be doing with his slack-jawed work on the pitch however, the fact he’s been given the whole of January to strengthen his bond with a Napoli supporter-base that has grave doubts about him and he has gone on to waste it. On Borussia’s transfer list is Odsonne Edouard, a forward I was very interested in signing over the summer. We got as far as personal negotiations before he handed me a list of demands that I point-blank refused to meet. That ended our interest and put me instead into Schick’s orbit. The Celtic player ended up going to Germany, and obviously it hasn’t worked out there. His single appearance for Dortmund offers a clue as to his malaise.

I place a loan offer for him, which will compel me to pay his £66k weekly salary in full, plus £2.9 million per month to his club. There’s an optional £52 million optional future fee in his contract, which I have absolutely no interest in meeting. This can only really happen if Schick makes way, so I offer him out on either loan or a permanent transfer. Lyon slap £15.25 million down for him. I accept, and just like that the disaffected Czech is taken off my hands. Edouard’s in, and Schick is out, the sort of dazzlingly quick deadline day bit of business that suggests Napoli is currently in chaos. We aren’t. It was just the case that we needed to make a fast decision, and it has been made. I think Edouard is the better player of the two, and I look forward to seeing what he can do for us.

Still, the £12 million loss we made on Schick hits me hard. It hasn’t been a good deal on my part. Of the players I brought in over the summer, they’ve all been either pretty good (Boga, Asenjo, Pellegrini) or outstanding (Tonali, Garcia, De Sciglio, Castrovilli). Schick’s the outlier, a costly (for us) acquisition who simply hasn’t worked out as I hoped he would, and that’s on me.

Nothing else happens. The feigned interest in the likes of Fabian, Zielinski and Lobotka becomes nothing more than that and the world’s focus is elsewhere. Donyell Malen’s £65 million move to Inter is the big news of the window. Rodri has left Manchester City for PSG, and to replace him Guardiola has signed Manuel Locatelli for the sort of fee I can only dream of commanding. Max Aarons is now a Chelsea player, and the Blues have also gone for Marcus Edwards and Luis Suarez (the young Colombian forward rather than the toothy Barca legend).

February contains five Serie A fixtures, five opportunities to wrest back our control of the division. The schedule includes Lazio at home, almost certainly the most difficult of the challenges ahead, whilst in the Coppa we have Juventus twice, and the first of our Champions League knockout matches against Zenit. The African Cup of Nations finishes on 5 February when the Final takes place in Stade De Football D’Olembe, Cameroon, after which we should have Osimhen and Koulibaly back to strut their funky stuff in Neapolitan blue.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: January 2022 Part 1

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

The New Year opens with some promises to keep and awards to announce. Fabian and Grimaldo have both complained to me that they aren’t playing as often as they would expect. I agree to give both more time in the field, as they are fair concerns to express. Of course, they are talking to the newly re-inaugurated Manager’s Manager of the Year, though that counts for nothing. Alex Meret wins the World Golden Glove, a recognition of the outstanding number of clean sheets for which he’s responsible. Both he and Kalidou Koulibaly are named in the year’s World Team, rubbing shoulders with some very illustrious company. The latter is the African Defender of the YearVictor Osimhen is picked as the best African striker, with Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech picked as the overall best footballer from that continent.

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Eric Garcia is our best trainer at the moment. He’ll need to be. There’s a new focus on him with Koulibaly playing in Africa for up to a month. Our away day at AS Roma presents a number of selection problems. Lozano is out for the foreseeable future. We can’t choose from Kouli, Boga or Osimhen. Insigne isn’t quite right yet, but can be picked for the bench. Garcia partners Manolas at the back. Politano moves to the left wing with Orsolini on the right and Schick playing as striker. I’ve fired off a loan offer to Arsenal for Gabriel Martinelli, to boost our options. The potential sticking point is the Brazilian’s wish to be a regular starter. We can’t offer him the amount of playing time that he wants, so it’s with fingers crossed that I load squad rotation status into the bid. Martinelli, young and capable, would be a decent addition to the side. It’s his youth that matters; we’re up to the limit in squad numbers, and he will escape registration.

Roma are a good side, with a couple of players – Pellegrini, Veretout – who I really admire. That said, few improvements have been made to their ranks and there’s a reliance on golden oldies like Dzeko and Mkhitaryan that have slowed them down considerably. The game is a super dull 0-0. We have the lion’s share of scoring opportunities, but neither Schick or Insigne get to take advantage. I think we might have broken the deadlock when Garcia nets from Politano’s free kick, however he’s clearly offside. Late on, Veretout puts in a dangerous challenge on Politano that has him seeing red. I order the players to press their advantage, but they seem to interpret my instruction as ‘play for the draw’ and the time simply peters out.

It’s never a bad result to force Roma to a draw, however everyone is aware that we need to keep on winning to retain the advantage over Juventus. They win 2-0 away to Verona and reduce our lead to four points.

Schick and Orsolini were especially poor in the Roma game. Better is expected, and there’ll be a stiff test to come with Inter Milan at home the following weekend. Now managed by Ernesto Valverde, the opposition have been forced to cope without two big money departures in Martinez and Skriniar. The latter is replaced with Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico, which is in my eyes a very sound choice. Their main strengthening is on the flanks, a fair area to work on as previous manager Conte had little time for attacking wingers. Their incoming players are Julian Draxler (£24.5m from PSG), Marco Asensio (from Real Madrid, £17m) and Stephan El Shaarawy, at one point the bright young talent of the Italian scene and now at the Giuseppe Meazza, having negotiated a move from China. I’ll confess the winger was on my radar, but his enormous Shenhua wages looked like a barrier and Inter are paying him the best part of two hundred grand per week.

This one is seen as a potential revenge mission for Politano, a Nerazurri reject and now playing a starring role for our good selves. Instead, this becomes the stage for Patrik Schick, played in attack by default and justifying his selection with an excellent hat-trick. His second is the best, not so much for his poacher’s goal but for the approach play by Castrovilli, who seems intent on weaving and dodging his way past every opposition player before putting in the killer cross. Riccardo Orsolini adds a fourth to make up for his leaden work against Roma. Towards the end, Grimaldo fouls Eriksen just inside the box, rather a cheap penalty to give away, and either Romelu Lukaku makes no mistake, or Meret continues his proud record of being completely incapable of saving a penalty. Still, 4-1 is a smashing result against a side that concerned me.

Sebastiano Luperto leaves on loan to Bordeaux, and Gabriel Martinelli signs for us. With Lozano unavailable for up to two months still, his input will be most valuable. Milan are after Grimaldo to the extent they are making actual cash money offers for him. I’ll accept no less than thirty-five million.

Cup matters take over. We’re up against Hellas Verona in the Coppa. It’s a competition we really have to try and win, and we entertain the Mastiffs on a mild and sunny January evening that makes me really appreciate working in a place like Naples. Martinelli starts on the left wing, and at half-time is moved into the striker’s role as Schick has been frankly anonymous. The Brazilian is marginally better, but it’s Lorenzo Insigne who makes the difference, introduced after the break and then going off on a solo run and firing beyond the keeper from a tight angle. A great goal, befitting the player and making the difference as we produce a leaden 1-0 result. There are fewer than 17,000 supporters in the ground for this one, and they’re right to stay away. We have played complacently, and I’m forced to let the players know it.

Hopefully they can raise their game at the weekend, when we face Internazionale again in the Super Cup Final. Last season, we did Juve to clinch the trophy and it’s something to defend, though in my heart I would far prefer us to work through the league schedule instead. The opposition will showcase new signing Donyell Malen here. The striker has sealed his £66 million transfer from PSV as their replacement for Martinez. He doesn’t have quite the Argentinian’s finished product, but he isn’t far off and we will have to respect him. Meanwhile, Milan refuse to pay the £34.5 million we require to allow them to talk to Grimaldo. It’s a waste of time; the player isn’t even interested in going.

The Super Cup is staged in Saudi Arabia, at the King Saud University Stadium. Inter score in the first few minutes when Stefan De Vrij heads in Asensio’s free-kick, and then we labour – and completely fail – to produce anything in reply. Schick is awful, Politano and Zielinski dreadful, Insigne surprisingly crap. Even after Barella has been dismissed for a dangerous tackle we are unable to press our advantage. Basically Inter have managed us, neutralised our attacking threat. Grimaldo and especially Fabian come out of it well enough; the rest are poor. They triumph in the cheapest won trophy you’ll ever see, and while the Super Cup doesn’t really matter ultimately, I’m gutted.

Juventus beat Bologna on the road and move to within a point of us. We’re back in Italy and return to the Coppa, facing Torino at the San Paolo. They’ve just appointed Hermann Hreidarsson as their new manager and no one knows exactly what to expect from him, however they aren’t as good as we are and we really do need to put the Inter defeat behind us with a win. It’s no classic. Despite peppering their goal with shots Sirigu is imbued with the spirit of Walter Zenga, dealing with everything, and if the opposition know how to do anything then it’s to defend in numbers. In the end it’s a classic set piece goal, Armando Izzo heading in a bullet from Zielinski’s corner kick, which makes the difference. Despite the narrow margin, this stands as a well worked victory that leaves me sanguine. Less assuring is the news that Juventus await in the Semi-Final, which means two additional matches against the Old Lady. In the other half of the draw Inter will play the winner between Atalanta and Lazio. At least the sort of complacent work we put in to let Udinese ease past us last year won’t be an issue.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: December 2021

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Just three league games this month, along with the completion of our Champions League group schedule, before the winter break kicks in and we all get to enjoy Christmas with our families. Beyond that is the opening of the January transfer window, a number of Napoli players on other teams’ radars (more on this below), all taking place during a packed, New Year schedule.

We open with a home game against Cagliari. Going into this one, we know that Juventus have travelled to Lazio and been forced to a 0-0 stalemate, so it’s an opportunity to put a little buffer room between them and ourselves. We make hard work of it, because of course we do. The 1-0 victory we achieve will do little to appease the board’s demand for classy entertainment, however a win’s a win and the Sardinians do not represent generous opposition. They aren’t in our class, but they know how to put in meaty challenges, racking up the bookings and forcing Elmas and Osimhen off the field early with thankfully negligible knocks. Patrik Schick, on for the Nigerian, scores our winner, his first for us in Serie A, so we can look back on a job completed at the end of a tie that is far from one for the ages.

Next up in midweek are Shakhtar Donetsk at the NSC Olympskyi. A point in Champions League Group G separates us and all we need to do is not lose here in the Ukraine. In my view we have been by far the better team so far, carving out a +12 goal difference while the opposition have tended to ease past their opponents. This counts for nothing if we lose. Shakhtar’s shining light is Marcos Antonio, the latest in a production line of strong Brazilian talent finding itself deep in the former Soviet Union. A central midfielder no doubt playing for his inevitable transfer to Manchester United, the midfielder is an assists machine, a pocket Mezzala who our scouts believe I should seriously look into adding to our ranks.

We’re welcomed with peels of sleet, and a home team that plays at a meandering pace. They force one good save from Meret, otherwise it’s defined by the battle at the other end between Osimhen and eccentric keeper Loris Karius. It’s one the keeper wins. At his best Vic can find the sweet spot in spectacular fashion, but this isn’t one of those days. His best opportunity comes when a routine back pass-from Dodo is weak enough for the striker to latch onto, an easy chance, only for Karius to dash out of his box and divert the shot into touch. Oh well, a point was all we required, and that’s how it ensues, a tired tail-end of the schedule and not helped when I make a gaffe of one of the substitutions (admittedly not as bad as the time I brought a keeper on to replace the striker). We’ve won the group, and in a few days’ time we will know exactly who looms in our future.

Before that, we get to return to Italy just before setting off once again, this time for Sassuolo. Juve are entertaining Milan, and instigate clobbering time as a Douglas Costa brace helps ease them to a scary 4-1 victory. We know we have to get a good result against a team we consider to be beatable yet deserve respect. Hirving Lozano puts us in front after a fine passing move between the Mexican and Osimhen, before the latter earns us a penalty after pulling a Swan Lake in the box. Politano’s shot is fired straight into the arms of the keeper, which looks costlier still when Domenico Berardi scores an equaliser in the forty-second minute. This is especially irritating, as Berardi has been specifically marked out as a danger man, then he turns out to be exactly that. After the break Politano’s corner kick is headed across the line by Eric Garcia, a goal I suspect to be ever so slightly offside, then we settle back into prevailing, holding on to our lead, replacing tired bodies as we see out the time.

The Champions League First Knockout Round takes place the next day, several hours’ build-up and UEFA self-congratulation, and then the dropping of the balls. Of the teams we could get, I would hope to avoid Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea and Porto. The alternatives are Real San Sebastian and Zenit. We’re drawn against the latter, a winter sojourn to Mother Russia, but for me it could have gone worse. Of the other Italian outfits, Juventus are taking on Bayern Munich in possibly the tie of the round. Lazio will have to negotiate the challenge of Chelsea.

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The youth intake preview offers little to get excited about. There’s a decent looking centre-back in there apparently, but I’m advised not to expect much and suspect that it will be an instance of looking elsewhere for the future of the squad.

December’s reduced schedule finishes with Sampdoria at home. I would like to end 2021 with a big result and the Genoese look made for us. They’re tenth and continue to be dependent to an extent on 38 year old striker Fabio Quagliarella. He’s still a consummate centre forward for them, like a lesser Zlatan, and I still recall with affection an old Championship Manager 2001/02 save in which I managed Fiorentina, then relegated to Serie C2, in which he took a starring role in helping our long, slow climb back to the top. There was a time, back when Quagliarella was busy trying to play for as many clubs as possible, when he was on our books, playing pretty well in between spells with Udinese and Juve.

We are playing Sunday’s evening match, and by the time we enter the arena the news filters through that Atalanta have done us a favour by prevailing over the Old Lady via a 2-1 victory.

Roberto D’Aversa wrong-foots me by not selecting Quagliarella for his starting eleven. Instead he’s gone with Sebastiano Esposito, half the veteran striker’s age and far more of a quick, raw handful. Then Insigne comes off. The forward has pulled a hamstring, which will ensure that he spends the winter break convalescing. Lozano comes on and lasts around fifteen minutes before himself exiting via the stretcher. This time it’s a torn hamstring, a far more serious injury that will remove him from our affairs for up to three months.

In the meantime, we win 3-0. It’s a good victory, overshadowed by the loss of Lozano but pretty much exactly how we want the script to work out. Eljif Elmas shoots us into the lead, before Gaetano Castrovilli heads past Audero. Osimhen has once again missed a string of chances, and is brought off for Patrik Schick, who justifies his presence with another headed goal, this time more artful as his effort loops over the keeper.

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The year finishes in fine fashion then. With the catch-up matches played elsewhere, leaving all of Serie A on sixteen games, we are six points clear and sitting pretty, with the considerable caveat that there is barely any room for error this time around. Concerns for January include Lozano’s injury, exacerbated by the African Nations competition that will rob us of the services of Koulibaly, Boga and Osimhen for a time.

Ahead of the January transfer window, here’s the list of Napoli players who are on other teams’ wanted lists, and what I think of the prospect that they will move…

Glory Hunter – Napoli: November 2021

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Lorenzo Insigne is currently considered to be the highest rated player in Serie A. I agree. In the goalscoring stakes no one comes close to Luis Muriel’s nine strikes for Atalanta; Orsolini and Osimhen lead our path with four apiece. Like last season we are the division’s leading scorers, but those goals come from a variety of personnel, which is exactly how it should be. I’m still in awe of Sebastiano Esposito, Inter’s young gun who is on loan with Sampdoria and has scored five goals in seven appearances. He will be mine, oh yes…

November features four Serie A matches, and two more in the Champions League, with an international break thrown in. The domestic challenges don’t compare with what we faced in October; Fiorentina away looks like being the trickiest in the schedule. Things are simpler in Europe. Beat SC Freiburg at home and we have qualified for the knockout stages. The Germans were rough and ready in the away tie, and I’m expecting more agricultural challenges back at the San Paolo. Time to order in the extra-strong shinpads, perhaps.

The only real criticism the board have made of me so far is that we have not been as effective from set-pieces as we were last season. Our first two here come from just those situations. Eljif Elmas scores from a corner, before Politano’s free kick crashes back off the crossbar and Kostas Manolas slots home from the rebound. Elsewhere, Elmas scores two more to claim his hat-trick and Patrik Schick also finds the back of the net to produce a fearsome 5-0 home victory. All our goals are scored in the first half. We can move out of top gear after the break, sensing Freiburg’s lack of threat, and when Almog is sent off for a grisly challenge on Boga it’s all over.

A good way to achieve qualification then, and now it’s back to Italy to entertain Hellas Verona. There’s celebration for Orsolini, who’s called up to the Italian national side in light of Chiesa’s injury. Roberto Mancini had been busy telling me how little he rated our winger, so I can only imagine his chagrin as he’s forced to turn to a player he believes to be bobbins. Go on and show him, Ricci.

The less said about the Verona match, the better. As is becoming a weary trend, we do everything right against them, apart from score. They register one off-target shot to our endless number of efforts. In the end, a Kalidou Koulibaly header from Insigne’s corner is enough. But we could have bagged ten. Osimhen is particularly wasteful, and I hook him at half-time because of warnings that he might have sustained an injury. Schick takes over, to little effect. By the end I am producing origami from my note paper.

A two-week breather for the Interlull, Orsolini returning to us two caps to the better, and straight into an away fixture at SPAL. Winners of Serie B in 2021, the quality gulf is glaring. It takes around ten minutes of this one before I realise that I should have picked none of the Partenopei’s international players for this one. They’re knackered. Fabian is never the most robust ninety-minute man, but he’s done in within half an hour. Castrovilli has to be removed about a third of the way in, for a knock that turns out to be nothing more serious than fatigue. SPAL start energetically, inspired by forward Ramirez, which sounds like just my luck, to be stung by an enemy of the Boro supporters, and it takes most of the first half before I realise that he isn’t the dread Gaston, but Ignacio Ramirez, a fellow Uruguayan but there the similarities end.

Despite the worries over player fitness we are easily good enough to blow away the side known as the House of Este. Matteo Politano scores a brace. Kalidou Koulibaly heads home a corner, and there’s a first Napoli goal from Jeremie Boga, the winger intent on covering half the pitch before beating Berisha.

It’s a good thing that we win here. Juve are matching us result for result, demolishing Cittadella 5-1 as they continue to breathe down our necks. They are developing the kind of consistency against sides they should beat in the way we did last season. There’s no room for error here.

In the Champions League we’re off to the Johan Cruijff ArenA (never understood why they have a capital ‘A’ at the end) to face Ajax. The intensity of this game doesn’t really rise above tepid levels. We’re through, why worry? Well, the concern is that Shakhtar could wrest top spot from us, and while they’re beating Freiburg to move within a point we’re only good enough for a 1-1 draw. It’s an even day; I tell myself that this is because Ajax are a lot better than the lowly points haul they have achieved in the group. Eran Zahavi scores early. Hirving Lozano, a former PSV man who understands how to get one over on bitter Dutch rivals, finds a second-half equaliser.

Whether we want to finish first or second is anyone’s guess, really. The argument that we’ll get a kinder draw in either position can’t be justified when I look at the make-up of the other groups. It won’t be resolved until early December, when we travel to the Ukraine for a match that will decide the outcome.

Two Serie A games remain to finish the month. The first is a home tie against Bologna. Third in the division, a decent number of points away from the title race but playing very well all the same, the Petronians have veteran full-back Lorenzo Di Silvestri to thank for much of their success. Now a sprightly 33 and supposedly entering his stud years, the Italian right-back has generated a superb average rating of 7.52. Defensively very capable and ensuring Lozano has a quiet game, it’s fortunate that there’s little to them elsewhere. For our part, Eric Garcia scores his first for the club deep into first-half injury time, knocking in Politano’s corner kick. Elsewhere we are brittle and unadventurous. Schick starts. He’s unmemorable. Elmas and Zielinski do little, not so good from a pair of supposedly top tier advanced playmakers. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Fiorentina are hitting the top ten under the aegis of Michael Laudrup. This is good work considering they sold Castrovilli to us, then lost top defender Milenkovic in a £25 million deal to Atletico Madrid, and finally were divested of Bartlomiej Dragowski, one of the better keepers in the division and wearer of a glorious hipster beard. The Pole now turns out for Freiburg. Laudrup’s replacements are modestly acquired. PSG centre-back Thilo Kehrer is now here, as is Jesse Lingard, a free signing from Manchester United. The latter starts on the opposite wing to Ribery, a pair of veteran players who can cause problems on their day. This isn’t it. We run out as straightforward 3-0 winners. Victor Osimhen scores an incisive first half break, before Sandro Tomali’s direct free kick wraps up the points. The presence of Felipe Caicedo in their forward line fails to strike terror in our hearts as the home team produce little and hand victory over in a nice, gift-wrapped package.

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And win we must. Juventus are four points behind, with a game in hand, which I feel they are more than capable of taking good advantage of to keep the pressure up. They really want their title back. Bologna are now thirteen points further back, so you can see for yourself what the situation is in the division, how it’s shaping up for the remainder of the campaign. It’s very much like how Serie A played out back when Juve were serial victors and Napoli bit at their heels, except this time we are the champions and there’s a requirement on us to defend our crown. Can we?

Glory Hunter – Napoli: October 2021

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

Another international break looms, but before that we are playing Genoa at home. Vincenzo Torrente’s side are doing better than last season, when they flirted throughout with relegation, but this has all the makings of a sound home win to complete a strong start to our Serie A title defence. As it turns out the match is an exercise in frustration. With many of our regular starters rested and the likes of Boga, Lobotka, Elmas and De Sciglio taking part, we’re fluent enough without ever finding that final cutting edge. Osimhen is notably wasteful, Schick little better. The visitors have their chances also, though never enough to fully trouble Meret. It takes bringing Insigne on late and relying on the little man to pick out Riccardo Orsolini, who at last finds a way past Vodisek, to land us with the points. Not a brilliant showing. Sure, we bag the win, which is what matters in the end, but this one smacks of the wastefulness we exhibited in spades during so-called winnable ties last year.

When we get back we face a straight run of Lazio, Milan and Juventus, so these points could make all the difference. There’s part of me that feels the boys perform better in fixtures where they really have to up their game. Complacency against allegedly lesser teams, the ones they are supposed to win, can find them performing sluggishly, as against Genoa, so maybe more of a challenge will help to stir their passions. Maybe.

No new injuries incurred during the break, but as always the more involved international stars return to us fatigued. I am ever grateful that, having rotated players carefully to meet the various challenges we face, national managers just use them as they want without a care in the world for how they will be feeling at the end of it. I have to make a decision to field my best available eleven for the away game at Lazio. SC Freiburg follows in midweek, and even though the Romans are in lower mid-table they are assessed to be the stiffer challenge.

After finishing third last season, Simone Inzaghi’s Eagles are enduring a tough start to 2021/22. Fifteenth currently, David Carmo and Maximilian Wober have been signed to improve their defensive effort, which hasn’t clicked into place yet. This is, on paper, a good time to play them, but the comeback has to start somewhere. Hopefully it won’t be against us. My nerves are quelled when Lorenzo Insigne puts us ahead early. This is lovely for its approach play. Lazio are trying to compress space, like any good team should, so the way Fabian and Tonali spray passes around to send defenders scuttling after shadows creates the gaps that allow Grimaldo to put the cross in for the Italian’s opener.

We’ve been better than the home side, and it’s with some annoyance that they equalise after around half an hour. Their goal is Lazio’s one significant attack of the half, and results from the breaking up of a Napoli corner, Joao Mario emerging with the ball and picking out Ciro Immobile, who evades the attentions of Manolas before placing his shot beyond Meret. This angers us into action. Another corner for us ends in Kalidou Koulibaly heading in, a quick restoration of our lead. Victor Osimhen scores something of a wonder goal early in the second half to kill off their challenge. By this time I am already replacing players, bringing off Fabian, Zielinski and ultimately man of the match Insigne, and wrapping them up in cotton wool for the tests that lie ahead.

It is a good thing that we win here. Elsewhere, in the Turin Derby Juve open a can of whup-ass on Torino, winning 6-0 with Bentancur in particularly sparkling form. Pochettino is doing far too professional a job here. I miss Pirlo.

SC Freiburg then, the Bundesliga side from Baden-Wurttemberg that term themselves the Breisgau Brazilians. Within a fairly pedestrian group they have been identified as potentially the weakest, and with Milan at the weekend this could be our best opportunity to bench some of our more leading lights. It’s a difficult balancing act, rotating players, hoping that superior fitness will prevail. As we travel into Germany, I pore through the latest round of scouting reports. They keep slipping in the dossier on Manchester City keeper Ederson, a high recommendation who would set us back more than £60 million. This is sheer fantasy football. There’s no way we can afford him, even if the Brazilian is clearly world class. You want me to bankrupt the entire club, huh?

The Germans turn out to be a difficult opponent. They play the Gegenpress and play it well, however like ourselves they are mixing Champions League football with domestic matters and quickly begin to tire. Victor Osimhen has us ahead before the break, slotting home a delicious, chipped assist from Elmas that is viewed by the defenders as a kind of personal insult. As the home team wilts the yellow cards start to fly. Multiple bookings, and when Lienhart sees his second card for flooring Elmas from behind their challenge is over. We’ll take a 1-0 away win any time. Another two and a half million in the bank, and a step closer to qualifying from our group.

Uncle Carlo Ancelotti is back at AC Milan. An unimaginative managerial appointment perhaps, but everyone’s favourite elderly relative has ‘previous’ here and is a steady hand for them. They lost Hernandez in the summer, hence the endless sniffing around Grimaldo, however they can now call on former Neapolitan Jorginho, a £33 million signing, and then returned to Chelsea to snap up uninspiring striker Michy Batshuayi. As a replacement for Zlatan he’s not the most inspiring, but that’s more or less an invite to him for scoring the winner against us. Fifth in Serie A but giving us a rough time of it last season, they aren’t the sort of opposition I look forward to facing.

On a sunny afternoon at the San Paolo we win 3-0, by some distance our best result against the Rossoneri. Milan are difficult and Donnarumma is always too good to be beaten with anything but special striking, but fortunately we have Lorenzo Insigne, who scores a brace. He also sends in the corner kick that is cleared messily by red and black shirted defenders, leaving Riccardo Orsolini in space to volley in our third. The winger is on for Politano, who lasts most of the first half before going off injured – thankfully it isn’t a serious knock, but the boy’s fragile and it’s a concern. In the meantime, I am slightly worried that we are little more than the Lorenzo Insigne Show. We are always better for the presence of our totemic Neapolitan winger; then again, when he puts on displays of this high quality then who’s really complaining?

We now have the unimaginable luxury of a week without football before travelling north to play Juventus. The Old Lady is breathing down our necks this season. Their victory away to Inter in midweek puts them a single point behind, so despite our good form we are in serious danger of losing top spot here. At least we don’t have to plan for Ronaldo, who is out with a hip injury. For our part, Hirving Lozano has sustained a dislocated jaw in a training ground set-to and will be unavailable for a couple of weeks. This is bittersweet news. The Mexican is a quality and unpredictable forward, though that very unpredictability means I am never sure what he’s going to produce. I’m warned that Osimhen’s appearance in this game will activate a transfer clause, wherein we will owe Lille another £2.3 million. I don’t care; it wasn’t me who agreed the madness of his massive fee.

I wonder if the loss of Cristiano actually makes Juve that little bit more dangerous. He was the focal point of their attacking effort, and without him perhaps the likes of Chiesa, Douglas Costa, Morata, Dybala and Kulusevski play better as a unit. For a much-hyped top of the table clash, the match is a damp squib, a forgettable and largely highlight-free 0-0 draw. That’s fine by me. The two groups of players basically cancel each other out. Juve have scored a lot of goals, but we concede hardly any and it’s a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object as we toil to a stalemate.

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More importantly, we have retained first place within a table that has the look of developing into a two-horse race. Look at who else makes up the top six in Serie A. Inter, Roma, Milan and Lazio can’t keep being as bad as they have been, but they are all dropping points with the generosity of a Conservative government slapping the backs of their buddies with Coronavirus contracts, and already they are slipping off the pace.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: August/September 2021

To catch up on the story please head yourself over to the Chapters page.

There’s a chance to open the season with a win, a home game against Benevento before the international break kicks in. This is as nice a start as we could have hoped for, testing ourselves while taking on a lower mid-table side, managed by Filippo Inzaghi and now featuring Gennaro Tutino, a winger from our depths who they recruited. We should win with some ease and we do, sending thirty-two shots in their direction while they rack up a single, off-target effort. Disappointingly, all that pressure adds up to one goal, a twelfth minute strike from Riccardo Orsolini that should have been added to many times. Osimhen is wasteful in attack and is eventually replaced with Insigne, but defensively I have no complaints.

As the players head off to play for their countries, I watch the draw for the Champions League. As Serie A and Europa League winners we are in the first pot, heading Group G and in a cauldron with AjaxShakhtar Donetsk and SC Freiburg. To my mind it’s a pretty straightforward set-up. We have avoided superior second seeds like Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea. Napoli’s Champions League record isn’t astonishing. In previous efforts we have failed to get past the Round of Sixteen, losing out in the past to Chelsea, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid and Barcelona, so to progress anywhere beyond this point will be an achievement. In truth there’s plenty of time to win this competition, so I would be very happy if we reached the Quarter-Final.

The priority, beyond trying to retain our Serie A crown (for which we are predicted to finish third, behind Juve and Inter) is to claim the Italian Cup, which will pretty much allow me to move to another country. The draw for the first round has us facing one of Verona or Pescara. Get past them and it’s either Cittadella, Salernitana or Belotti-less Torino in the Quarters. This sets up a likely semi against either Juventus or Roma, the former now managed by Mauricio Pochettino, presumably a surer hand for the Old Lady than the failed experiment of Pirlo.

We’re at home again for the visit of Atalanta once the international break is over. The only injury we’ve suffered is a sports hernia to Nikita Contini, a month’s layoff to a player who is far from crucial to our cause. Things are made worse in the first few minutes of the match, however, when Luca Pellegrini is forced off during his debut. A crunching tackle from Rafael Toloi sees the young left-back replaced and facing five to six weeks out with sprained knee ligaments. It’s especially a shame as seven Italians have been picked for our starting line-up.

The first half is an exercise in frustration. Despite playing with a balanced mentality, respecting the visitors’ ability to break in numbers, we pummel them. Gollini’s goal is leading a charmed life, the woodwork coming to his aid more than once while brittle defending breaks up a number of good attacks. Victor Osimhen is having little luck out there. More than capable of putting himself into one-on-one situations, his efforts go wide or are saved, all until the forty-ninth minute, when he finally produces a finish that billows into the bottom corner. Moments later, a corner is broken up, only for the ball to wind up back with Matteo Politano on the left flank. Advancing into the area and evading challenges, the winger puts himself to place his shot from an acute angle. It defies everyone and puts us 2-0 up. And that’s how it remains, a fine performance from the boys against a very good side that at times seemed intent on leaving more than just Pellegrini requiring treatment.

Our Champions League adventure begins with Ajax at the San Paolo. We clobbered them in pre-season and I hope they are just as easy in a competitive match. The Dutch visitors are of course one of the competition’s illustrious names. They might not have the cachet of the 1995 competition winning side, but their reputation for producing excellent young footballers (who soon get picked off by the vultures) remains intact. The one to really keep an eye on is Brazilian winger/forward Antony, 21 years old and having scored seven goals in six league fixtures this season. Lisandro Martinez is a top class ball playing defender who I’m kind of surprised is still here. They also sport two Partenopei who were sold to them by me, Kevin Malcuit and Faouzi Ghoulam.

Our victory here isn’t as impressive as the friendly that didn’t matter. Ajax showcase David Neres, the tricky winger who with millions more in the bank account we might have been interested in signing. The players react with visible fear each time he’s on the ball, however Alex Grimaldo is inspired at left-back and keeps him quiet, indeed we restrict the visitors to one off-target shot. Patrik Schick fires us into the lead shortly before the break, a great moment and particularly for him, as he arrived suffering the stigma of a ten-match non-scoring record. Hirving Lozano adds a second on the hour mark. Fabian’s cross is nodded on by Zielinski (having a busy and good game), and the Mexican actually rounds the keeper before slotting into the net.

In the Europa League we’d be handed a few hundred thousand for winning a group match. Here it’s £2.46 million. The board are very happy with that.

As Barcelona target Bentancur and Dybala is on Manchester United’s radar, we appoint Claudio Ranieri as a scout. It seems a bit weird to hire such a managerial legend to go out and source players for us, but there it is.

We’re away to Udinese at the weekend. Our record against them isn’t exemplary. While the Friulians shouldn’t be in our class and are a far cry from the team that once fielded Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale in the same team, they knocked us out of last year’s Coppa Italia and have a good history of nullifying our attack. I field the big guns, notably Insigne and Politano, in an effort to right that old wrong. Luca Gotti manages a fairly pedestrian side, though teenage midfielder Martin Palumbo is clearly a future star and is being scouted by us heavily. Obviously Udinese don’t want to sell him, but as his renown develops I expect Palumbo to exert some pressure of his own… That is, if he doesn’t turn into the new Di Natale, happy to be brilliant in a smaller side and resisting our overtures.

Can we get something from this one? Nope; Udinese’s bogey team status remains intact as we labour to a 1-1 draw. I think it’s all going to be okay when Eljif Elmas scores a first-half screamer, a real sign of what the young Macedonian can produce. Then it’s all undone by a moment of madness, when a routine pass back from Manolas to Meret leaves the keeper clearing it clumsily to forward Kevin Lasagna, who slams his shot into the top corner. Vexing stuff. I’m particularly disappointed with our keeper, ordinarily a figure of complete solidity but who costs us the victory here. Politano is today’s casualty, ruled out for a fortnight with a gashed upper leg. The upside is Mattia De Sciglio, who makes his debut and seals up the right-back role. Nothing passes him.

A new report reveals that we are the fifth highest at commercial income in Serie A. Our £39.5 million is dwarfed by the riches raked in by Juventus, obviously, but we’re slowly getting there. In midweek we are hosting newly promoted Cittadella. Finishing second in Serie B, this should be a home banker for us, and I’d love to see us do the business emphatically, with a note that often enough these games send the players to sleep.

I ring the changes for this one. Luperto plays at left-back to give Grimaldo a break. Izzo partners Garcia in the middle. Boga gets his debut for us on the left wing. The stage is set for a Hirving Lozano hat-trick. He’s playing on the right and tortures the visitors with three goals of incisive greatness. Stanislav Lobotka pops up with a headed finish from a corner kick, and Gaetano Castrovilli adds a fifth late in the game, his first for Napoli. Cittadella actually impress me. They aren’t very good, but they know how to compress space, which brings the best out of us as we need to thread our passes through the eye of a needle; all the same, the quality gap is plain to see, especially with our potency in attacking areas.

Brescia Calcio are based in Lombardy, so it’s another long trip northward for us on Saturday as we take on Diego Lopez’s newly promoted outfit. We’re facing Shakhtar in midweek and can, I think, afford to leave out a few of the big guns here. Insigne is the notable rested player, as Lozano starts on the left and later will be replaced with Boga. Focus however is on Sandro Tonali, a midfielder we signed in the summer from the Rondinelle. Nerves are his. Some players love coming up against their old teams and showing just what they can do. Others, like young Sandro, feel they have a lot to thank their alma mater for, what they’ve done for their personal development, but it’s character-building for him to be in our line-up.

Any concerns are wiped away in the eighth minute when Tonali scores from a direct free-kick, a wonderful effort that was taken from outside the penalty area. Victor Osimhen then scores two, the second from the spot and the first a lovely bit of opportunism as Mateju is dwelling on the ball in his box and is robbed by Orsolini, who provides the simple cross for the Nigerian to slot home. Riccardo Orsolini then scores on the hour mark. Ernesto Torregrossa pulls one back, arguably something they deserve as they have pressed with intent, but then Gaetano Castrovilli nets from another long-range effort to restore our four-goal cushion. 5-1 is an emphatic final score. I’m happy with just about everyone, particularly Grimaldo, Osimhen and Tonali. Lozano has one his lesser days and doesn’t complete the ninety. Garcia is at fault for Torregrossa’s reply; Izzo finishes the match in his place.

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September finishes with Shakhtar Donetsk at home. Things look good domestically, where we have a one-point lead ahead of Juventus to head the table. The Turin giants seem to have the brakes off this season and look much better; we will need to stay ahead of them. It appears to me that so much of the Old Lady’s cause relies on Ronaldo. He’s leading the scoring charts once again, but if anyone can nullify him (and that’s asking a lot, in fairness) then is there much else to them? As for our Ukrainian opposition, this is a good chance to top the Champions League group. They will face us with new signing Divock Origi on their left wing, and Dodo at right-back, the latter a player we were scouting in the event that Di Lorenzo left. They’re good, Champs League regulars in fact, but the scouting report suggests that we are better.

Not that the first half demonstrates anything of the sort. It’s nervy and bitty; scoring chances come at a premium. 0-0 at the break and I’m telling the boys that I am displeased with them. Hirving Lozano listens to me, scoring a second half hat-trick that puts us completely in the driving seat. As the visitors pile forward in the last few minutes to find a reply, we break and Lorenzo Insigne scores his first of the campaign as a consequence of complete defensive confusion. The Ukrainians are good at injuring players. Zielinski is forced off early, fortunately for a negligible knock. Grimaldo fails to complete the game after an industrial Dodo challenge that leaves him with a bruised ankle. It could have been worse, but the absence of a fit, natural left-back will probably force me to be creative against Genoa.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Meet the Boys 2021/22

After all the horse trading and at least one club legend stinking out some other place, I have what I feel is a better balanced and younger squad. Before going into the position-by-position write-up, here’s a grid that breaks down the players in order of priority. Homegrown in Italy players are shaded green. It’s blue for those who are homegrown in the club.

Goalkeepers

This unit is now decisively led by Alex Meret ( 24 years old, 1 cap), who saw off the challenge of previous regular David Ospina  and kept clean sheet after clean sheet in 2020/21. Those are high standards to maintain, and the major criticism of him is that he was bound to look good statistically when he played behind such a good defence. In his favour Meret was world-class against Barcelona, who can breach Hadrian’s Wall with their attacking prowess. He’s well on his way to becoming a leading Serie A keeper. Behind him is Sergio Asenjo ( 32, 1 cap), replacing Ospina because he’s happy playing as back-up. A highly competent choice with more than three hundred league games in his history, Sergio is a great distributor and smashing at communication. We know that we’re in safe hands with him. Finally there’s Nikita Contini ( 25, 0 caps), retained largely for his homegrown status and showing few signs that he will emerge to challenge Meret at any point.

Right-Backs

Giovanni Di Lorenzo ( 28, 16 caps) is an important wing-back for us and considered to be a leading Serie A player. Technically gifted and capable of putting in pinpoint challenges, the only doubts revolve around his injury record. I considered letting him go to resolve the matter, but he’s pretty loyal to the cause and I’m just as happy that he has decided to stay. He’s ably deputised by Mattia De Sciglio ( 28, 39 caps), a consummate squad player who I’m delighted to welcome to the San Paolo. A fine role model and consummate team player, his numbers aren’t as good as Di Lorenzo’s but there can’t be many things that he hasn’t seen in the game and he’s looking forward to his fresh start.

Left-Backs

This is the province of Alex Grimaldo ( 25, 0 caps), in for his second term as a Neapolitan having enjoyed a good first season that was punctuated with significant injury lay-offs. A fantastic dribbler and good crosser of the ball, his hope is to eventually usurp Jordi Alba in the Spanish national team; greater robustness on his part will be necessary. I’m very pleased to welcome Luca Pellegrini ( 22, 0 caps), here on loan from Juventus and considered to be one of the country’s bright prospects. Hard working and quick, he’s already keen to turn his stay into a permanent one, though persuading the Old Lady to sell will be an altogether tougher prospect.

Centre-Backs

A celebrated area of the squad that achieved great success last season, the line is led by captain Kalidou Koulibaly ( 30, 51 caps), a formidable defender who must be up there with the best currently playing in Italy. We’d miss him if he left, which came close to happening when Manchester United bid for him in the summer. Happily, he had no interest in going. His regular partner in crime is Kostas Manolas ( 30, 51 caps), close to operating at the same high standard. He has the height advantage to be a target in set-piece situations, otherwise he is a superb no-nonsense defender.

Our best alternative is now Eric Garcia ( 20, 2 caps), a free signing from Man City and valued at £24.5 million. The newcomer expects plenty of football and is going to get it – he has the potential to be as good as our starters, and with them both entering their fourth decade he represents a future for the unit. Mentally his powers are astonishing; he’s a smart cookie and it’s in the technical areas of the game where he specifically needs to develop. Armando Izzo ( 29, 3 caps) had a very good first season back with the Partenopei, refusing to be overawed by the company he’s keeping and fitting in well. A ball-playing stopper with fine technical assets, Armando helps us to sustain a full-sized squad thanks to his homegrown status, and it’s for the same reason that we have promoted Sebastiano Luperto ( 24, 0 caps) after a year on loan at Crotone. The fringe player has made a handful of appearances since signing from Lecce back in 2014 as a bairn. Now given his opportunity to stake a place and ready to be tested against lesser opposition, he’s being mentored by Manolas.

Defensive Midfielders

In the wake of Bakayoko and Demme both leaving the club, the pair has been replaced with Sandro Tonali ( 21, 3 caps), one of Italy’s most exciting prospects and someone who played well for Milan in 2020/21. A deep lying playmaker who has already wormed his way into the international scene, Sandro has excellent passing faculties, and the sort of concentration levels that should be crucial as he patrols the gap between defence and midfield. Whilst I considered signing someone outright (Juve’s Mandragora was on my radar for some time), my feeling is that Stanislav Lobotka ( 26, 32 caps) can serve here really well. He’s now in his second full season with Napoli, and I hope to test his ability to dictate the game’s tempo and depend on his high composure levels. As a central midfielder, Stan wasn’t entirely comfortable, especially when we were pushing for goals, so it seems more natural to use him further behind.

Central Midfielders

Fabian ( 25, 16 caps) is the star man here, someone I like to think of as our De Bruyne, with a superb passing range and skilful abilities that make him pretty much complete. He isn’t even at his peak yet; his capacity to improve still further is frightening. In the meantime, his goals and providing of assists are exemplary. Fabian’s advanced playmaker complement is Piotr Zielinski ( 27, 66 caps), a star operator but someone who at times played within himself in 2020/21. Like his midfield partner, Piotr loves a killer ball and is all-round brilliant in his role technically; unexpected things can happen when he’s around. My feeling is that he’s yet to hit the heights consistently, nevertheless he was an ever-present last year.

It’s important to have good alternative to our two main men. Eljif Elmas ( 21, 29 caps) is an advanced playmaker/Mezzala who’s capable of producing real moments of excitement. Another great passer, Eljif’s real ken is in his off the ball movement, his restless tendency to put himself into advantageous positions and help out, though he’s a very long way from being the finished article. A work in progress then, but his final impact might be explosive. The unit’s new face is Gaetano Castrovilli ( 24, 1 cap), snapped up from Fiorentina for an £18.75 million fee that may turn out to be a real bargain. He fits in well with the group, bringing his own high-level technical ability, and he’ll work for hours. Smart and unpredictable, he was a positive presence during pre-season and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.

Attacking Midfielders – Right

After a season on loan with us Matteo Politano ( 28, 18 caps) signed permanently from Inter. It was good that his transfer was pre-arranged, as Matt turned out to be excellent, scoring twelve goals and providing eleven assists as his constant creativity on the wing was a real boon. His abilities with free kicks and corners were another big plus. He played for us as though he’d been here for years, fitting in perfectly from the start and was named the Serie A Best Player of the Season for 2020/21. The only concern is a slight risk of injury, and it’s for this reason we are fortunate to have Riccardo Orsolini ( 24, 1 cap). Still improving as a footballer, Ricci’s natural enthusiasm made him try things that didn’t work out when he first got into the side, but since then he’s developed into a team player of some renown, physically excellent and working hard on honing his technique. We’re all excited about having him here; he should provide stiff competition for Matt.

Attacking Midfielders – Left

Napoli’s best attacking player operates here. I’m talking of course about Lorenzo Insigne ( 30, 47 caps), the short-arsed Neapolitan who was totemic for us in 2020/21. We might have sold his regular partner in crime when Dries Mertens left for Arsenal, but this team leader has resolved to plough on, torturing full-backs with his acceleration, flair and technique, scoring a stack of goals to help our cause. The message is clear – field Insigne, whether on the left or up front as a False Nine. If he is operating further forward then his position reverts to Hirving Lozano ( 26, 54 caps), a wonderful and unpredictable inverted winger who can use his pace to devastating effect. Capable of playing happily on either flank, Hirving’s downside was a degree of inconsistency that could make him anonymous in certain situations, notably against sides we were expected to beat soundly.

It’s this that made me sign another winger, Jeremie Boga ( 24, 8 caps), who had a thrilling season with Sassuolo before being put on the transfer list because of his contractual demands. Now playing for a bigger club, this former Chelsea man is a fantastic dribbler, dangerous on the ball and fully capable of striking with purpose and venomous accuracy. He’s a natural force but not the brightest, and his lack of ability in putting himself into good positions will need to be worked upon.

Strikers

The aim last season was to slowly ease Mertens out for Victor Osimhen ( 22, 15 caps), which worked as the Belgian legend steadily waned in terms of his powers. Vic was a mega-money signing last summer, rather frivolously spent if you ask me, and it’s placed undue pressure on him as the transfer fee is a lot to live up to. Still, he emerged as 20/21’s top scorer, a pressing forward who takes advantage of his status as the fastest sprinter at the club, his uncanny ability to put himself into good positions, only really let down as he fluffs a number of his goalscoring lines. To back him up we have signed Patrik Schick ( 25, 36 caps), the onetime Roma advanced forward who is developing into a reliable presence for his country. The complementary bag of tricks he brings compared with Vic’s blunt force spearhead is staggering. He isn’t as quick (who is?), but he’s a better finisher and brings superior levels of vision to the table. It will be fascinating to see how he settles in. He was great for us in pre-season, and has much to prove after the supporters have complained that we might inherit the poor scoring form he was in during his latter days as a Bayer Leverkusen forward.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Pre-Season 2021

England win the European Championships after picking Portugal apart 5-1 in the final. How many years of hurt has this victory cancelled? Having demolished their group, Mancini’s Italy go out to the Portuguese in the first knockout round, which is poor but isn’t enough to lose the manager his job.

Our pre-season schedule starts on 24 July with a visit to Carpi, a Serie C side that plays in the province of Modena. I’m away arranging transfers and leave the management of this one to Luigi Riccio, and it’s perhaps for this reason that an underpowered Partenopei can only draw 1-1. The home team have one shot during the entire match, from which they obviously score, while our efforts to overpower them results in a rugby score of chances, but just one reply, a late Insigne penalty to save our blushes.

Over in the USA, our run of friendlies begins with a game against the New York Red Bulls, the American member of the RB family. Another Insigne penalty and Tonali scoring from a goalmouth scramble hands a 2-0 win in our laps. We play quite well here, though Politano takes on a gashed lower leg from a ‘Welcome to the US of A, mo fo!’ challenge that removes him for the rest of the schedule.

We nearly come a cropper in the New York City FC game. I experiment in the first half with a 4-2-3-1 formation, fielding Elmas in the hole. It’s a disaster, our attempts to overload the attack resulting in a 1-0 deficit at half-time. Panicking, I switch back to what we know and we score three second-half goals. Grimaldo bags a rare strike, a low shot that flies underneath Barbosa, and then Insigne caps things off with a brace.

Philadelphia Union are next. I have been after a new striker for a while and after enquiring after various players me trail leads me to Bayer 04 and Patrik Schick. The Czech international has played for his country in the Euros and scored the winner against Spain in their group tie. That seemed to be the sum total of his efforts however. Though Czechia make it to the Quarter-Final before being eased out by Portugal, Schick’s fairly dreadful and it’s perhaps this factor that makes his £27.5 million move to Napoli such an unpopular move. The fans are underwhelmed, and I guess I can see that when we’ve effectively swapped out Dries Mertens for… this? Schick, for his part, sees the transfer as the opportunity for a rebirth and scores a first-half hat-trick against Philadelphia. His first goal is the best, a delicate chip over the keeper that’s pure artistry. Castroville and Osimhen also score in a 5-0 destruction. It’s very good.

We now have a week to go until we face Barcelona in the European Super Cup, the match-up between the winners of the Champions League and the Europa victors. Eric Garcia has been involved in the Olympics for Spain so we have barely seen hide nor hair of him. He should be back in time for Barca.

Windsor Park in Belfast is the setting for this showpiece. The opposition are heavy favourites, and it’s easy to see why. Antoine Griezmann has been in stellar form for them. Frenkie de Jong controls things from midfield, and Ansu Fati and Coutinho are simply superb attacking midfielders. And then there’s Lionel Messi, the little god who’s just come off the kind of campaign that confers yet more divine status upon him. They’re impressive. They play like it too, putting us under pressure early, though Alex Meret plays like Dino Zoff, saving shot after shot. He’ll eventually be named man of the match. At the other end Victor Osimhen noses us ahead just before the break. It’s his last action of the game; he comes off with a slight knock, and we play the second with Insigne operating as a False Nine. Another burst of attacking goodness forces Clement Lenglet to tap the ball into his own net, before sub, Adnan Januzaj, pulls one back with a few minutes remaining. We waste time, play defensively (it’s what we’re good at), and claim the European Super Cup.

This victory is worth £4.11 million, a smashing little bonus. I deliver some personal praise to Alex Meret, who deserves it. The board are happy too; they have watched what they define as entertaining football so everyone’s a winner today. I think football is the real winner obviously.

Ahead of our last couple of friendlies Manchester City make overtures to right-back Elseid Hysaj. We barter them up to £26.5 million, a few million more than his value, and it seems that he’s on his way. I field the Albanian in the pre-season game against Atalanta, probably as a fond farewell to someone who has been a good club servant. Eric Garcia makes his first appearance for us here also. The match is generously attended by just under 35,000 locals. We win 2-0, two cracking goals from Lorenzo Insigne and Jeremie Boga, the latter a real crowd pleaser that provokes a celebratory cartwheel from the winger.

Hysaj joins Man City. Napoli are now showing a healthy balance of £61,092,907, but there is still more than twenty-five million in the kitty and I would like to use the two spare spaces in our squad to sign a replacement for the full-back, and a better back-up keeper than Contini. The latter is identified as Luigi Sepe, who currently plies his trade with Parma. The fee – £5.25 million – is reasonable, and the player is a former Neapolitan, so I could bring him in and loan out or even sell Contini. But then the red wall falls in my contractual negotiations with the player. He wants back-up status, which is fine, and a limited salary (ticks my box), but in there is the non-negotiable demand that he is named as vice-captain. There is no way on this good earth that I’m taking that away from Insigne, so the negotiation promptly ends there. Honestly, why would he be asking for that?

The player we bring in for Hysaj is a cut-price deal for Juventus’s Matteo De Sciglio, who is on their transfer list and costs £3.2 million. Similarly aged to the Albanian and presenting very comparative numbers, De Sciglio is happy to be paid less (Juve even throw in £10,000 per week towards his contract) and to play second fiddle to Di Lorenzo. Speaking of whom, Valencia have been after our starting right-back for some time and make an offer. I say they can talk when they meet my £40 million asking price, and to my surprise they agree. For a few days I’m left to sweat on this one. I’m wondering how to blow the money on someone really good to fill his boots (two words – Max Aarons), and then Di Lorenzo turns them down and the situation settles back to normal.

Our last friendly is a home game against Ajax, who draw a decent crowd. The Neapolitans who show up for this one are given a treat, an emphatic 5-1 win in which we flex our attacking muscles with two goals from Insigne, and strikes added by Garcia, Lozano and Schick. The Dutch get a very late reply from Magallan, their one shot on target of the entire match. By the time this one is done the visitors have brought on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, now a sprightly 38, more than a decade on from the when he played in Serie A for Milan.

Teams still want Di Lorenzo, and Grimaldo is on Sevilla’s radar, as we enter the last day of the transfer window. I’ve had my arm pulled in seeking out that elusive back-up goalkeeper. £4.7 million has been spent on Sergio Asenjo, the 32 year old Villarreal net custodian. It wasn’t easy to sign a keeper who’s prepared to play second fiddle. I could have nabbed Loris Karius on a free, but it’s Loris Karius. Asenjo doesn’t have that stench of failure. He’s a good alternative to Meret, taking on a modest salary and happy to be here. By this point I’m just relieved to have filled the last obvious gap in the squad.

Elsewhere, Milan’s Theo Hernandez goes to Chelsea for £38.5 million and that sends them to my door with an offer for Grimaldo. I reject it out of hand. The loss of their left-back is just one of a string of high-profile Serie A players leaving the country. Lautaro Martinez finishes at Inter and goes to Liverpool for a princely £73 million. The same amount is lavished on centre-back Milan Skriniar, who will now play for Barcelona. The Pool clearly don’t feel that Martinez is enough and shell out a further £49 million to acquire Andrea Belotti. We emerge as Italy’s biggest spenders, spunking out £114 million in total. We’ve recouped a similar sum, and there’s still nearly seventeen remaining with the wage budget reduced. Not a bad window at all.