Glory Hunter – Napoli 2021/22: The Squad

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

A review of the boys who entertained you through another exciting and ultimately successful season…

1. Alex Meret
Age – Nationality: 25 –  (1 cap)
Current Value: £43 million (£14.25m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 54 (0) – 37
Average Rating: 7.09
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Should be considered a leading Serie A player
By now, Alex is undisputed wielder of Napoli’s goalkeeping gloves, performing above average in every key area (especially in the paltry number of goals – 17 – he conceded in all competitions). Happy at the San Paolo and in love with me (it’ll never work out), Alex is being offered a new contract to keep him in my favour. Another good year’s work.

2. Giovanni Di Lorenzo
Age – Nationality: 28 – (22 caps)
Current Value: £45 million (£26.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Right Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 40 (0) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good timing in the challenge
A high level and consistent season, the injury breaks of 2020/21 seemingly a thing of the past as Gio raised his level to that of being a regular fixture for club and country, and earned a new contract in the process. He enjoys a big match, is still improving as a player, and while his attacking work wasn’t as emphatic as it had been he made up for it with consummate performances at the back. Gio was at his best when up against star players on his flank, notably Cristiano Ronaldo, who he neutralised on each occasion they opposed each other.

3. Alex Grimaldo
Age – Nationality: 26 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £34 million (£19m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left-sided Complete Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (1) – 0 – 7
Average Rating: 7.21
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Very technical
Any doubts I reserved over Alex evaporated this season, as he remained fit, played often and became much better in his providing of assists. He claimed four match balls to underline his importance to the cause, and he seems to grow in authority by the game. By now a clear first choice in his position, the harder job may be to hold on to him with the likes of Milan sniffing around, though why he would want to leave is anyone’s guess.

4. Kostas Manolas
Age – Nationality: 30 – (58 caps)
Current Value: £44.5 million (£27m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (0) – 3 – 0
Average Rating: 7.17
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a physical player
It’s no black mark against Kostas that the Garcia impact wrested him from an obvious starter’s place. The Greek international had another good season, and the arrival from Man City allowed me to rotate the pair with Koulibaly to keep all three fit and raring to go. Kostas was at his very best in January, when we were short of players and his regular partnership with Garcia maintained our gnat’s chuff tightness at the back. A steady, reliable and consistent performer.

5. Eric Garcia
Age – Nationality: 21 – (5 caps)
Current Value: £52 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 41 (2) – 5 – 2
Average Rating: 7.19
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Anticipates situations well
This season’s revelation. You never know what you’re going to get from a free signing, do you, and yet Eric turned out to be worth every bit of faith that we showed in him, playing very often and somewhat effortlessly muscling in to break up the Koulibaly-Manolas partnership at the back. A resolute and smart defender, his excellent work has propelled him into the Spanish national side and landed him with a new contract as his release clause was worth less than his current value. I think he could be good for us for many years to come.

6. Kalidou Koulibaly
Age – Nationality: 30 – (64 caps)
Current Value: £47 million (£46m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (0) – 4 – 0
Average Rating: 7.15
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Strong player
Manchester United made a strong offer for Kalidou last summer. I accepted it, only for him to turn down the move and spend the time since then resenting me for trying to sell him. Ideally I want his disaffectedness to end (another ninety days apparently) and for him to sign a new contract as he is entering the final year of his current one. I think it will all end well. The Senegalese remains exactly what he was, which is a defensive titan, also the team captain, and emblematic of what we have achieved together here.

7. Eljif Elmas
Age – Nationality: 22 – (38 caps)
Current Value: £53 million (£14.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (10) – 6 – 5
Average Rating: 7.11
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Ability to dribble makes him a difficult player to come up against
Very much an improved job of work for a player about whom I admit I had my doubts in 2020/21. He became exactly what I hoped he would, which was to be crucial in midfield, producing an excellent personal xG/90 level and enhancing his value both to us and in terms of what he would fetch on the market. He’s wanted by Tottenham, who I should expect to meet at least what he’s worth on the market. He won’t be easily replaced, and I couldn’t always say that.

8. Fabian
Age – Nationality: 26 – (25 caps)
Current Value: £61 million (£48.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (8) – 1 – 4
Average Rating: 6.93
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Passing ability underlines his technical prowess
What on first glance seems to be a fairly average season needs to be placed within the context that Fabian played in all of our more difficult matches. Invariably picked away from home, in the Champions League and against the best Serie A has to offer, he was very good and his overall value improved markedly. In the Liverpool games he was the most imperious Napoli presence, sparking everything that was good about us, and it’s probably this that has made him a target for Jurgen Klopp. He’s now mithering about a new contract, which will no doubt pay him at the elite level he’s attained.

9. Victor Osimhen
Age – Nationality: 23 – (29 caps)
Current Value: £52 million (£23.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (1) – 19 – 4
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has explosive pace
I’m still smarting about the outlandish amount of money we paid for Vic. Thanks to various add-ons and bonuses the fee has now risen to £68 million, and I don’t think we are done with coughing up yet as various treats are still to be activated. It’s a ruinous fee, and Vic just hasn’t been worth the outlay… That said, he had a 2021/22 that was broadly in line with his first season here, which makes for a solid couple of years’ work overall, and it doesn’t seem to matter which forward we bring in to challenge him, he always comes out on top. That speaks volumes.

11. Hirving Lozano
Age – Nationality: 26 – (62 caps)
Current Value: £47 million (£21m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left/Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 12 (14) – 9 – 0
Average Rating: 6.95
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Lack of any real strength hinders his physical presence
A season of two halves. Before his torn hamstring injury in December, Hirving was firing on all cylinders for club and country. Upon his return, all his powers appeared to have been wrested away. A ghost of the player he once was, there’s too much competition for places and other players out there who I like the look of, and my temptation is to sell him, especially as we could do so for a lot of money. Paying someone £120k per week for bobbins isn’t my idea of good value.

12. Armando Izzo
Age – Nationality: 30 – (3 caps)
Current Value: £23 million (£17.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 4 (1) – 2 – 0
Average Rating: 7.43
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has declined slightly
The impact made by Garcia put paid to much of what Armando could do. Our three main centre-backs all remained fit, and our back-up could do little but sit on the bench. That said, when he did get on to the field he didn’t do a lot wrong, and two goals in his five appearances is an excellent return. His status as a homegrown player, coupled with his relative happiness, makes him protected and more or less unsellable.

13. Luca Pellegrini
Age – Nationality: 23 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £7 million
Homegrown status: Trained in Nation
Position: Full-Back (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 22 (1) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 7.13
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Drafted in as a loanee from Juventus, Luca took his chances and did well with them, a technical player who could produce some levels of magic on the ball, measured by high aggression levels that earned him ten bookings. He’d love to move here permanently, however his club aren’t interested in selling him to a rival, which seems fair.

14. Odsonne Edouard
Age – Nationality: 24 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £18.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 6 (12) – 4 – 0
Average Rating: 6.72
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A peripheral figure in the squad
Before we brought in Patrik Schick Odsonne was a player I looked at to the extent of making an offer. I was put off by the high number of demands he made, and he ended up going to Borussia Dortmund instead. Barely getting to play (he was up against Haaland, in fairness), he was transfer-listed and I made the decision to draft him in on loan in January. Suffice it to say I’m happy to give him back, on paper a consistent and big game performer who rarely raised his game above the moribund. This was his chance – opportunity blown.

15. Riccardo Orsolini
Age – Nationality: 25 – (3 caps)
Current Value: £47.5 million (£13.75m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 28 (14) – 11 – 9
Average Rating: 7.24
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The player has been in a rich vein of form of late
Everyone likes a maverick. Ricci isn’t the best team player; his liking is to collect the ball and try to produce something of solo wonder, which led to as many moments of ridicule as magic. More of the latter in recent times though, as this unpredictable and exciting winger grows in confidence and stature within the set-up. I like him a lot. He’s a brilliant dribbler, and his high determination levels have made a winner of him.

16. Nikita Contini
Age – Nationality: 26 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £2.1 million (£1.2m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: N/A
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Leading player for most Serie C sides
Time to call it a day here. Nikita drew another blank, decent enough in non-competitive matches but far behind both Meret and Asenjo and the only reason he’s still around is to pad out the homegrown numbers. There’s no reason to keep him on the books any longer.

17. Stanislav Lobotka
Age – Nationality: 27 – (40 caps)
Current Value: £42 million (£12.25m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 19 (8) – 2 – 1
Average Rating: 6.98
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is adept at using either foot
Stan converted to defensive midfield in the summer, alternating with Tonali and never letting us down in his new role. By the end he has commanded a more enhanced place in the side and will be awarded a new contract. A good year from a consistent performer.

18. Matteo Politano
Age – Nationality: 28 – (26 caps)
Current Value: £41.5 million (£35.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 27 (11) – 6 – 15
Average Rating: 7.31
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays resolute characteristics
More good work from Matteo, one of the side’s most reliable and productive players, a true team player with a bagful of assists to his name. The fans really like him, particularly his crossing ability, his great effort to be found in space, and his work on corner kicks. The battle between him and Orsolini for the right wing continues to be a good-natured and fascinating battle of wills.

19. Jeremie Boga
Age – Nationality: 25 – (20 caps)
Current Value: £32 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 8 (13) – 2 – 5
Average Rating: 7.06
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fairly poor intelligence on the football pitch
A force of nature to rival Orsolini, Jeremie was drafted in to provide quality at back-up and has probably asserted himself by now as the legitimate alternative to Insigne on the left. Wholly capable of misplacing a pass, then running back to regain control before setting off on a mazy dribble that ends in a shot, there are sure contradictions in his game, however his sheer flair and agility, coupled with dazzling pace, makes him a threat, albeit of the ‘headless chicken’ variety on occasion. On the whole, a promising start to his Napoli career.

20. Piotr Zielinski
Age – Nationality: 28 – (74 caps)
Current Value: £58 million (£29.5m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 32 (11) – 3 – 11
Average Rating: 7.00
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a creative player
A very good season from Piotr, who took the threat to his place from Castrovilli positively by upping his game from central midfield. Capable, sadly not all the time, of controlling matches, and able to put in some fine killer passes, the Pole is a leading Serie A player who is starting to wonder whether he should move to a bigger club. Mate, there is no bigger club. This is the place for you.

21. Gaetano Castrovilli
Age – Nationality: 25 – (8 caps)
Current Value: £38 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker/Mezzala
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 23 (22) – 4 – 6
Average Rating: 6.94
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has improved as a footballer over the last two months
Signed from Fiorentina to enhance our options in central midfield, Gaetano had little difficulty in raising his performance levels to the bigger side for which he was now playing and impressed us with his creativity. Performing above average and providing a genuine alternative to Zielinski, it was actually pairing them in the side that turned us into a killer, driving force, the Italian using his superior vision to pick out teammates and move into space. He’s an exciting player for us, and I look forward to seeing his development.

22. Sandro Tonali
Age – Nationality: 22 – (9 caps)
Current Value: £40 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 36 (3) – 2 – 3
Average Rating: 6.95
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays a fairly determined attitude
Sandro arrived with big shoes to fill, having to take over in defensive midfield from Bakayoko and Demme. This he did, with some aplomb. His performance levels dropped towards the business end of the season, but overall he produced good work throughout and was a clear first choice for his most pivotal of roles. His physical play was of an especially high standard, and he never stopped working. An international footballer who’s wanted by Manchester City, it’s a priority of ours that we keep him.

23. Sebastiano Luperto
Age – Nationality: 25 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £9 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 21 (0) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 6.69
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player who could still improve
Seb has spent the second half of the campaign on loan at Bordeaux. He needs the playing time, and he’s got it, but I don’t think he has done especially well and the temptation is to quietly shuffle him out. That said, we will await his return and then assess him further. By all accounts, the promise of future capability is there.

24. Lorenzo Insigne
Age – Nationality: 30 – (55 caps)
Current Value: £50 million (£42m, end of 2020/21)
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/False Nine
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 33 (7) – 13 – 11
Average Rating: 7.29
Key Coaching Comment: ‘First touch is key to him being a technical player
There are moments when we have threatened to be the showcase for Insigne’s talents, which sort of works because he’s central to the cause, one he would bleed for, given the need. It’s testament to the improving levels elsewhere that he gets to be what he is, which is a leading attacking force, performing consistently well and still working to improve his game at a time when many players would consider themselves to have hit their peak. The guy cares, that’s for sure, and we are the better for him.

25. Mattia De Sciglio
Age – Nationality: 29 – (39 caps)
Current Value: £17.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Full-Back (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 17 – 0 – 1
Average Rating: 7.30
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Current role model for younger players
Almost the perfect back-up player, Mattia was signed cheaply from Juventus and went on to perform well whenever he was required to give Di Lorenzo a break at right-back. Despite his lack of creativity, he did well defensively – all positive points for a fringe player acquired for £3.2 million. The sticking point is that his contract finishes in summer 2023. Mattia wants a big pay rise and to be considered a regular starter; I’m prepared to meet neither condition, so perhaps we will need to revisit this role again in a year’s time.

26. Sergio Asenjo
Age – Nationality: 32 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £5.25 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 1 – 1
Average Rating: 7.10
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Fringe player in his prime years
I meant to use Sergio more often, however Meret’s sustained fitness and his exploits made the Spaniard a complete bit-part option who nevertheless seemed reliable as an aging back-up. He signed a one-year deal initially and has quickly agreed to a further season with us. He’s happy to belong. I’m pleased to have an experienced alternative.

27. Gabriel Martinelli
Age – Nationality: 20 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £23.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 3 (6) – 3 – 0
Average Rating: 7.01
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Exciting young prospect who isn’t far from first team level
Brought in on loan from Arsenal in January, while Lozano was injured, Boga was playing in the Africa Cup and Insigne was struggling with fitness. There was never any great prospect of Gabriel playing regularly, and he didn’t, though to give him his due the flexible Brazilian forced his way back into the side, emerging as a more potent forward than Edouard and preferred to Lozano on the left. That says as much for those players as it does him. Even so, three goals in nine appearances isn’t to be sniffed at, and while Arsenal’s price-tag of anything up to £89 million makes him an obvious short-term option only, we’ve definitely got something from his stay.

Glory Hunter – Napoli 2021/22 – That Was the Season That Was

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

A very satisfying season’s work from the Partenopei, with a single defeat across the entire campaign (away to Liverpool, no shame in that). The Invincible finish to Serie A actually resulted in two points fewer than what we achieved in 2020/21, those eight drawn matches against four draws and two defeats last time around. We both scored and conceded a couple more, but who’s counting? We produced a +71 goal-difference, being second highest goal-scorers masking another year of brilliance at the back. There’s a lot to be extremely happy about – winning the division and the domestic cup competition, along with making it as far as the Champions League Quarter-Final, which as it happens is historically our best record in the competition. Something to build upon, right?

Glory Hunter Progress

The Coppa Italia victory over SS Lazio unlocks Italy. After just two years my work here is complete, though I am reticent about leaving Napoli behind. The players have become my babies, well maybe not crappy Edouard, and they took on the challenge of overcoming a resurgent Juventus with some relish. As before, Serie A is a mish-mash of some very good sides and a lot of ordinary ones. Juve, Lazio and Inter play at the same level as we do. Milan and Roma aren’t far behind, and then it all becomes much more straightforward. The likes of SPAL, Benevento and Cittadella would struggle to prevail in the English Championship, and as long as we held our nerves and didn’t become too complacent the chance of padding out our points total was nearly always there.

So where next then?

Season Review

Another year featuring three trophies – Serie A, the Coppa Italia and the European Super Cup. Of my new signings, the pick is considered to be Eric Garcia. The board are delirious with this one, a 21 year old Spaniard signed from Manchester City for gratis, playing 43 games for a 7.19 average rating. Over the course of the term Eric became more highly prized than Manolas, easing into second place – behind the inevitable Koulibaly – in our ranking of the team’s centre-backs. The only negative is that he signed with a £40 million release clause, and he is currently valued at £52 million. A contract offer will be winging his way.

Of the rest, Matteo Politano (signed permanently) and Matteo De Sciglio were unqualified successes. Pellegrini, Boga, Tonali and Castrovilli all did pretty well. Sergio Asenjo hardly got a look-in, though he didn’t expect to and I fully intend to offer him another year’s deal. Gabriel Martinelli joined on loan in January and did a fine job either on the left wing or in attack, contributing three goals in nine appearances, but Odsonne Edouard ended up being a bit of a stinker. He replaced Patrik Schick, the black mark on my transfer record. The search for an alternative striker to Osimhen goes on; at the moment, I look as though I have dropped a clanger in letting Dries Mertens leave.

Average home attendances have grown. While the San Paolo continues to play to less then capacity crowds, which annoys me, the overall average – 42,677, or 77% – is an improvement. Better still, player wages now only account for 44% of our turnover, a considerable drop on the 61% we posted in 2021. This is good. It’s for this reason that the board are being more generous with their budgets, giving me £60 million to spend on transfers and an increase in wage allowances. The latter is likely to be quickly eaten away with a raft of new contracts, as Fabian, Di Lorenzo, Lobotka, Orsolini and Meret are all seeking improved deals. They deserve them too.

Fortunately, this can be offset against a larger set of financial bonuses. Most notably, competition prize income has increased considerably, a £30 million rise as we were lavished with £77.74 million across the tournaments in which we were involved. The Champions League is an enormous money-spinner. Despite not getting as far in it as we did in the Europa League, which we won as you’ll recall, what it earns is far in excess and the club will hope to progress here.

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Here’s our best eleven across the term. At the back, you could just as easily have swapped Manolas for Kouliably, however it’s probably the latter’s loss in January for the African Cup of Nations that removed him from the selection. Alongside Osimhen and Insigne, only Orsolini hit the ten-goal mark, scoring eleven, however Politano probably deserves his inclusion for a more consistent season. The pair are interchangeable and bring different qualities to the table. The older of the two, Politano is a more considered and smart baller, ever looking for openings, while Orsolini is still a bit of a blunt force. You never know what’s going to happen when he’s on the ball, but it will end more often than not with an effort on goal. Sometimes, it works.

Of the awards, Lorenzo Insigne wins Player of the Year. I agree with this. It’s encouraging that we never turned into the Insigne Show, despite the winger’s importance and sterling effort levels. He broke a team record, earning ten man of the match awards across the campaign. Alex Meret shattered his own record for clean sheets, amassing thirty-seven, which is somewhat incredible. Eric Garcia is an obvious signing of the season; he also snaps up the young player award. Victor Osimhen is our top scorer with nineteen; it could have been more but for his Africa Cup exploits. With a strong fifteen assists, Matteo Politano was our most creative player.

Eli Martin of SPORTbible writes ‘Napoli have been brilliant since day one; their early-season football was a joy to watch, and they’re deserved champions.’ Our friend, Claudio Zanchetti from the Italian Football Free Press, has this to say – ‘Napoli flew out of the traps and set themselves up for the title many fancied them to win.’

The Wider World and Available Jobs

Elsewhere in Italia, Simone Inzaghi is dismissed – a little harshly, I reckon – by Lazio, and Verona are looking for a new gaffer after sacking Ivan Juric. They finished seventeenth, broadly as well as they were tipped to do, so again this seems a bit unfair. Torino (relegated), Juventus and Fiorentina are in what are considered to be precarious or insecure relations with their managers.

Manchester United retain the English Premier League by a margin of seven points over Liverpool. Bruno Fernandes is their main man. The Scousers make up for this reverse by claiming the Champions League, putting three past Chelsea in the final to win 3-0. In France, Mbappe’s twenty-five goals help Paris Saint-Germain to excitingly seal another Ligue Un Uber Eats. Lyon finish a distant second, fourteen points behind, however the league looks increasingly like the Parisiennes’ personal fiefdom. They’re inspired by a superb season from Mbappe, Neymar and Mahrez, and with a perceived lack of obvious firepower go out and spend £90 million on Erling Haaland. I’m genuinely not sure why they need him. The loss of Haaland to France is Bayern Munich’s gain. Another Bundesliga win, with Monchengladbach finishing second to make it a Munich-based wrapping up of the top two places. Dortmund are third. In Spain, Real Madrid do the double of La Liga and the Europa League. It’s a impressive job of work, racking up 102 points to leave Atletico Madrid and Barcelona trailing some way behind.

Available top flight jobs:

  • England – Newcastle (relegated, no thank you, though I do think that given Italy’s geo-politics Napoli are sort of the Newcastle of Serie A – still, no)
  • France – Amiens SC
  • Germany – none
  • Spain – Barcelona, Real San Sebastian

Personal Development

I have a four star rating, very good apparently, with the hope of progressing from the £36.5k weekly salary I’m drawing at the San Paolo. A lot of players earn considerably more than I do, making my charge of millionaire footballers occasionally a bit rich, if not downright embarrassing. I can now speak Italian fluently, and am considered excellent in media handling and managing finances, and very good at tactical consistency and handling team discipline. My career statistics are also worth a look:

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Glory Hunter – Napoli: May 2022

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

We make heavy work of Sampdoria up in Genoa, drawing 1-1 after a bad-tempered effort that’s low on incident and the board’s ever-demanding wish for excitement. Still, it’s enough to land the Serie A title in our laps. Gianluca Caprari fires them in front before the break, a consequence of building nerves as we totally fail to deal with Jankto’s incisive assist. This one’s on Garcia, a rare lapse in concentration from the Spaniard who, in fairness, is still a bairn. In the second half we roar back, making a series of changes, including the decisive one of swapping Fabian for Castrovilli to enhance our attacking options. The Italian lays off for Piotr Zielinski’s virtuous equaliser with seventeen minutes remaining on the clock, and then we continue to press the home team until the final whistle.

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Job done. We retain the league crown, after being forced to be more competitive with Juventus ever breathing down our necks. The following weekend we are entertaining AS Roma, a happy occasion as there’s a celebratory atmosphere in the stands and little sense of pressure. The side from the capital could make life hard for us. They turn up with a sterling midfield containing Pellegrini and Veretout; Zaniolo is playing at number ten, Kluivert in attack. They’re weirdly porous at the back, however, and a number of their stars’ potency is rendered useless as we put two quick goals past them, Gabriel Martinelli and Kalidou Koulibaly netting in a two-minute, second-half blitz to seal the victory. The slack-jawed performance of Odsonne Edouard makes it clear that he will not be dirtying our halls again after the end of the season. For some reason, his transfer-listed status at Dortmund leads to a string of questions about his ability to play his way off said list while with us. I don’t care. It isn’t my problem, and quite frankly I can see why he’s on it.

A number of players who wouldn’t normally be considered as regular starters – De Sciglio, Elmas, Lobotka, etc – play against Roma to keep us fresh for midweek. It’s time for the finale of the Coppa Italia, in which we are taking on Lazio. The blue half of Rome are in third place, almost certainly Italy’s best representatives behind our good selves and the bad selves of Juventus. They turn up to this one with several players who we really admire. Ciro Immobile is having another potent season in attack, scoring at a steady rate of one in two. Alongside him, the Argentinian attacker Joaquin Correa is a tricky customer, while both are serviced with high quality midfield talent in the shape of Sergei Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto. They’re good, no doubt there, but so are we.

Though being contested at Lazio’s ground, the Olimpico, we are the home side for this game. We’re favourites also. Close to a capacity crowd turns up for the occasion. It’s chucking down but mild, good spring conditions, and the action is sparing. While we make the lion’s share of attacking moves, Lazio foul their way through. Cataldi and Milinkovic-Savic earn first-half yellows, the latter locked in a personal battle with Fabian that the Spaniard frets over because he’s aware that they are both just about the best players on the pitch and he doesn’t want to fail. Early in the second period, he at last gets the better of the Serb, giving him the slip when collecting a Grimaldo throw-in. Fabian launches a lovely pass forward, to Victor Osimhen, who beats the offside trap and launches a vicious volley past Strakosha. It’s the only goal of the match, and a very good bit of quality from both players involved in it. Lazio do little in response, and we’ve won the Italian Cup.

Two more league games, and the minor landmark of an Invincibles season to play for. The tougher of the tests is an away day at Inter Milan. The home team are fighting for Champions League qualification, so this one matters. If we are ever to lose a game in the division then this one looks like being it, especially when Kostas Manolas is dismissed for a grisly challenge on Barella in the forty-third minute. At that stage the tie is tightly poised at 1-1. Romelu Lukaku and Victor Osimhen have traded goals. They’ve had the upper hand throughout, however, and without Manolas a hard afternoon is suddenly looking impossible. There’s nothing for it now but to defend. A lot. Fabian makes way for Koulibaly, and the second half becomes a Blitzkrieg as we work to keep Inter from adding to their account. As always at these moments, Alex Meret in goal shows his quality, keeping out shots from Lukaku, Malen and the enterprising Barella to ensure a 1-1 result. Defending is what we are best at, and we show why that’s the case at the Giuseppe Meazza.

The calendar finishes with Torino at home. Dead last in Serie A and officially relegated a couple of weeks ago, the Bull are considerably less bullish without the goals of Belotti. It’s in something of a party atmosphere as we romp to a 3-0 win, a double from Victor Osimhen before Riccardo Orsolini fires in our third.

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The final table looks like this. The points margin over Juve makes it look as though reclaiming the title was easy; it wasn’t. The Old Lady dropped off when the pressure was at its highest level, surprisingly losing to SPAL in May and finishing with an insipid draw against Bologna. Mauricio Pochettino is lucky to still be in a job.

Elsewhere, Ronald Koeman has been sacked by Barcelona. This is by some distance the most appealing of the available assignments in other divisions, and with no little sense of hope I send off my application. Italy is done. I could aim for cutting deeper into the Champions League with Napoli. We are moving into an elite level of European football, with the financial picture improving and good players becoming stars, but with the Coppa Italia added to my record I have a right to consider taking the next step within the Glory Hunter challenge.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: April 2022

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

If Champions League qualification is what we’re after, then there should be no easier way to nail it than with a home game against SPAL. In seventeenth position but probably having racked up just enough points to avoid the drop, this has all the makings of easy pickings. I field a lot of my back-up players here, keeping my powder dry for the trip to Anfield in midweek. That means starts for the likes of Izzo and De Sciglio, and Lozano making his long-awaited return at last. The Mexican scored five goals in a 10-0 demolition of Nicaragua during the break, and that would suggest he’s ready for this.

As it turns out, Lozano’s comeback game is edgy and riddled with nerves. He does well enough because, y’know, it’s SPAL, but there’s a certain effervescence missing from his game. He won’t last the ninety. After making hard work of soft opposition, perhaps realising what’s on the line here, ill discipline finally gets the better of the visitors when Strefezza fells Odsonne Edouard in the area. There was little need. The Frenchman hasn’t exactly clicked for us so far. Still, he makes simple enough work of the resulting penalty, sending Berisha the wrong way. A muscular Armando Izzo header from Boga’s free kick later in the game settles the score at 2-0. As usual, it might have been better, but poor finishing (Edouard fluffing his lines, Lozano fretful) keeps the scoreline down to a conservative level.

With Europe in the bag, I am advised of my initial budgets for next year. They’re good, so much better than what we were dealing with last summer. The weekly spend on wages has been increased to just under £2.9 million, but it’s the £60.9 million I’ve been handed to lavish on transfers that really pleases me. At last, I don’t need to rely on wheeling and dealing as I’ve had to do so far. I’m reminded that Pellegrini and Edouard are here on loan and will have to be replaced. Permanent solutions at left-back and up-front are my top priorities.

Also arriving at the top of my inbox is the news that this year’s youth candidates are here to be evaluated. I was previously advised not to expect a vintage clutch of future talent, and they weren’t kidding, however 15 year old centre-back Simone Gatti looks like he knows the right direction to move in, and that’s something. I fire off a quick contract offer to a boy who could turn out to be half-decent.

Liverpool next, who obviously look totally brilliant. You may recall me starting this adventure with a friendly against them, a ‘backs against the wall’ exercise as they tore into us. I hoped then that when next we met the odds would be more even, and I guess now’s the time to find out. They have Lautaro Martinez playing in attack, a wonderful striker signed from Inter in summer 2021 for £73 million. He’s a handful, however their real strength is behind the Argentinian, Salah and Mane promising to give my full-backs one hell of a handling job.

They show their hand early when Sadio Mane fires them into an early lead, one of those incisive finishes from someone who knows how to find and exploit space so well. My defenders, normally so accomplished, aren’t used to seeing work carried out so quickly. We’re shell-shocked. Not long after that Grimaldo puts in a meaty challenge on Alexander-Arnold that results in broken ribs and will ensure he can’t figure in the return. A horrible way to go, but good lad Alex. We’re marshalled out of the attacking areas completely. Insigne, Politano and Osimhen are anonymous, and when I replace all three after the break the results are only slightly better. Our best comes from an Orsolini shot. Shut down by Virgil and his mates, his effort goes wide, quite a bit wide in fact, but it’s better than anything we’ve produced to that point. It finishes 1-0, and it could have been worse given how contained we were.

After that debacle, travelling to Bologna should be a reprieve. Sinisa Mihajlovic has guided them to sixth position, a good season, however we’re favourites for this one, even if I’m having to rotate once again. Worryingly, this doesn’t go to plan. We can afford to drop a point or two, and the draw we crawl to only reduces our margin over Juve to six points, but my feeling is that despite changing the side we should be winning at the Renato Dall’Ara. Instead, it’s 1-1. Edouard hits a penalty kick straight at the keeper, before Musa Barrow sucker punches us, and we then spend the majority of the game trying to find a way back. On the hour mark Victor Osimhen finally equalises. We pummel Bologna, giving Skorupski the football equivalent of playing in a hailstorm (of shots), but ultimately it finishes as a draw. Not good enough. I’m especially displeased with Edouard, who we’re paying handsomely for not much return. His diffidence in front of goal concerns me so much that I am tempted to start using Martinelli instead. Of the others who let me down here, Lozano is having a poor comeback from injury. My patience with him isn’t endless. The Mexican is valued at £40 million and is sporadically wanted by other teams. Is it time to consider cashing in…?

Back to the Champions League and the return fixture against Liverpool. Given the personnel amendments that pulled up short in Bologna, there’s a part of me hoping our European adventure ends here. To my mind, we aren’t strong enough to rotate to the extent that we are, and we need those top players to help the cause in Serie A, to drag us over the line. A resurgent Juventus doesn’t help. Sure, it’s good to have the tension of a competitive run-in. Last year we won the division by a margin of twenty-two points, great for us yet less exciting for fans of Italian football, and the Pochettino-inspired Old Lady roaring back into contention makes me concerned that we could choke it at some stage. We have Roma at home and an away day at Inter to come in May, so the banana skins are very much ahead of us.

Still, we’ll give it our best at the San Paolo. Sadio Mane again gives Liverpool an early lead, a disappointing goal to concede as we have been testing Alisson at the other end and get caught on a counter-attack. Shortly after, Grimaldo picks out Victor Oshimen with a long ball. The striker holds off the attentions of Virgil and volleys his shot home to make it 1-1, but that turns out to be it from us. The visitors have a world class defence and are not afraid to use it. Despite emerging with the majority of shots and Insigne spilling his life blood in trying to rouse us into winning the contest, I think in the end we went out to a better team, and there’s no shame in that. At least I got to see Grimaldo win his personal battle with Salah, and we now get to concentrate on Serie A. Despite losing, we are awarded £9.59 million for reaching the Quarter-Final. The game also becomes a new gate receipts record. The £2.2 million we rake in from this one shows where the real money is at. We’ll come back better, harder, stronger.

After that, it’s incumbent on us to get back to winning ways in Italy. Fiorentina are the visitors, and we beat them 3-1, a scoreline that doesn’t quite reflect the superiority that we show here. Lorenzo Insigne bags two in a sublime display of attacking intent. His corner kick is headed in by Eric Garcia, the defender’s fifth of the season, and there’s also time for Felipe Caicedo to keep us honest with a tap-in after a sustained spell of Viola pressure. It’s a morale-boosting victory. That said, when your visitors’ main threat comes from Jesse Lingard then I guess the writing is on the wall (editor’s note – clearly this was written before Lingard became the new Cantona for West Ham; still, the comment stands).

We’re off to Cagliari in midweek, knowing that we can now finish no lower than second. Doing this would be a real shame, of course, but Juve have forgotten how to lose and we need to carrying on gathering the points. In a low-key affair, we win via the penalty spot, when Lorenzo Insigne is scythed down in the area. He nets the resulting spot-kick, and that’s about it. We’ve been compelled into putting Edouard into the team as Osimhen took a slight knock against Fiorentina. He does nothing. Lozano comes on in the second half and there might as well have been a big empty space in his zone. But we win, which is what counts, and even better news comes from Turin, where Lazio have produced a 1-0 away win.

April finishes with a home game against Sassuolo. We win 2-0 against a decent but perfunctory opponent. Victor Osimhen scores from a delightful Elmas through-ball, and then Riccardo Orsolini volleys in something of a worldy, a strike so good that it elevates him to Man of the Match status. The visitors are game yet limited. They get themselves into promising positions without being able to deliver a final product, ultimately generating one shot, almost an insult to a keeper with Meret’s calibre, whilst at the other end we constantly test the keeper. Props here go the Jeremie Boga, named in the starting line-up against his former employers, and to Eric Garcia who puts in an excellent tackle in our area to deny Berardi.

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Juventus go to the San Siro and are turned over 3-1 by AC Milan. The situation therefore becomes surprisingly simple going into the final month. Claim a single point from any of our remaining matches and we have won Serie A. Hopefully we can do it quickly. May also contains the final of the Italian Cup, tucked away neatly in midweek, betwixt difficult fixtures against Roma and Inter, so getting our league business out of the way before we complete this most important of matches will be a big bonus.

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?