With the season drawing to a close I am beginning to get a very good fix on the things I want to change over the summer. SSC Napoli have now gone into the red overall. We will have done very well if the bank balance is kept to less than ten million overdrawn by the time we reach the end, and this will certainly have an impact on what monies I am offered for transfers; neither can I expect to see any significant increase in my wage budget given that it’s so bloated from the start. I fully expect to have to work within existing limits, and to a large extent I think this is completely fair.
So it’s a case of needing to sell in order to buy. We have a number of players who are over twenty-one and currently out on loan, and I will need to make decisions about them, though most likely they are elsewhere for a reason i.e. not good enough. Of the current first team, I highlight the following areas:
- Goalkeepers – David Ospina will enter his final year contractually in 2021/22, and I am tempted to cash in now. Alex Meret has been mithering for a new deal, which he should definitely get, and while I currently ask Koulibaly to bully him back down whenever he raises the matter, the plan is to give him a pay increase and upscale his status to regular starter, with Ospina being sold off.
- Central Defence – Manos and Koulibaly are great, Izzo’s okay and homegrown, but elsewhere we are weak. Maksimovic is the fourth man, to be used at the direst end of need, however there’s a flexibility to him as he can also operate at right-back when required. Another good centre-back is needed. There are various targets, led by Eric Garcia who is winding down his contract at Man City and can be signed on a free.
- Defensive Midfield – I’m not very impressed with Demme overall and Bakayoko is better but here on loan. The likely outcome is that I will need to bring someone in over the summer. Sandro Tonali would be ideal, however I dare say I’m not the only person saying that and there are alternative targets. A position to watch.
- Central Midfield – not a priority area, yet good Italian midfielders like Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, and Lorenzo Pellegrini at Roma are tantalisingly cheap, according to my scouts, and I am tempted to look further into acquiring one of these, probably at the expense of Elmas, who has far from blown my mind this season.
- Strikers – the time is nearly here to replace Mertens with Osimhen as my regular starter. That said, old Dries still has something to contribute, even in his advancing years and entering probably his last season as a Neapolitan. The big plus with Mertens is that he can also play on the wings, so he’s useful to keep around. That does leave space for a plucky youngster to be recruited. Two Inter forwards who are trying to break through look like possibilities – Sebastiano Esposito would be perfect but possibly not for sale; Eddie Salcedo is the other, however not as good nor as reliable. After defensive midfield this is a priority for me; I don’t think we have threatened enough in attack and this needs to improve.
The situation entering the season’s penultimate month boils down to this. Napoli are on 74 points with twenty-eight played. Ten games to go, a possible thirty points still in play. Juventus are our closest challengers, in third place but with a match in hand over Atalanta. If they win each and every remaining fixture, including one against us, then they can finish on 87. The target is therefore 88. Five wins will do it, and as it happens there are just as many league games to play in April, though these include Inter and Atalanta at home and Juve away.
The title feels as though it’s within touching distance. Our form might be based on increasingly edgy performances, too often squeezing out results rather than owning the opposition, doing what we need to do instead of wowing the supporters. The board are disappointed that our football hasn’t been entertaining. They’ve got a point, however I feel this will come over time and with flashier players arriving. If I can deliver Serie A – Napoli’s first since 1990, and our third overall – then I believe most of their bugbears and doubts will fade away.
Inter Milan come to the San Paolo looking for an improvement in their fortunes. Ernesto Valverde is now the man in charge. He’s done what no one has achieved since Arsene Wenger and coaxed the good stuff out of Alexis Sanchez, who’s considered to be the one we have to watch. Lautaro Martinez starts alongside him, making for a premium front line hailing from South America, and they can also call on Perisic and a veteran, imperious midfield pairing of Vidal and Nainggolan. Stefano Sensi is out with a damaged kneecap, which for me is something of a blessing. Inter are ninth. They have been disappointing, but there’s a feeling that with Valverde they are turning a corner.
The stage is set for who can come out on top between a rampaging Inter attack and our tight defence. Can we grab a goal while keeping Martinez and his buddies at bay? The answer is yes. In the seventeenth minute, a Fabian cross to Piotr Zielinski, who’s twenty-five yards from goal, results in a long shot that defies both the away defence and keeper Handanovic to give us the lead. Early in the second half, while we deal with the visitors’ attacks a foray into the opposition half finds Lozano crossing in from the left. Matteo Politano is very narrowly onside, capable of producing an accurate finish from a tight angle and close marking, and it’s this level of scoring that is required to get the better of a top goalie.
Inter fail to find any kind of response. Martinez has their best effort, a point-blank shot against which Meret makes himself big and tips it wide. Phew. Juve can only draw away to Udinese, and considering we have the Old Lady next those two points gained may turn out to be crucial. In the meantime, we’ve had our youth intake. It’s rubbish. Here are the best of the bunch, and an uninspiring lot they are, sort of a Garnet Generation.
Kostas Manolas goes down with food poisoning. He may be back in time for the home leg of our Europa League Quarter Final, in which we are facing one of his old teams, the Greek comers Olympiakos. They progressed from a group that contained Feyenoord and Slavia Prague before overcoming Real San Sebastian and Viktoria Plzen to make it to this stage. Theirs is a small squad, anchored by Rafinha, the aging Brazilian full-back who has a lengthy spell with Bayern Munich in his list of previous. Now 35, the scouts don’t rate him highly, but I look at his levels of determination and would love to sprinkle some of that gold dust over my players. Elsewhere, it’s a mixture of journeymen and loanees. The absence of Greeks in their side is a surprise. Bruma, Adrian and Ruben Vinagre (borrowed from Wolves) bolster the ranks.
We entertain the Greeks on Thursday, with Juve to follow two days later, so there’s little choice but to make sweeping changes to our line-up for this one. Only Koulibaly and Grimaldo (because Mario Rui has a tight groin) are retained from the Inter win. Otherwise it’s a reshaped eleven. But that’s fine, because there’s a clear difference in quality between us and them. Any worries I have that Olympiakos might turn out to be one of those apparently lesser sides that carry secret timebomb of teamwork and dedication evaporate when Victor Osimhen scores two first half goals. After the break, they helpfully clatter Insigne in the box so that the Nigerian can get his hat-trick.