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There’s a chance to open the season with a win, a home game against Benevento before the international break kicks in. This is as nice a start as we could have hoped for, testing ourselves while taking on a lower mid-table side, managed by Filippo Inzaghi and now featuring Gennaro Tutino, a winger from our depths who they recruited. We should win with some ease and we do, sending thirty-two shots in their direction while they rack up a single, off-target effort. Disappointingly, all that pressure adds up to one goal, a twelfth minute strike from Riccardo Orsolini that should have been added to many times. Osimhen is wasteful in attack and is eventually replaced with Insigne, but defensively I have no complaints.
As the players head off to play for their countries, I watch the draw for the Champions League. As Serie A and Europa League winners we are in the first pot, heading Group G and in a cauldron with Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk and SC Freiburg. To my mind it’s a pretty straightforward set-up. We have avoided superior second seeds like Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea. Napoli’s Champions League record isn’t astonishing. In previous efforts we have failed to get past the Round of Sixteen, losing out in the past to Chelsea, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid and Barcelona, so to progress anywhere beyond this point will be an achievement. In truth there’s plenty of time to win this competition, so I would be very happy if we reached the Quarter-Final.
The priority, beyond trying to retain our Serie A crown (for which we are predicted to finish third, behind Juve and Inter) is to claim the Italian Cup, which will pretty much allow me to move to another country. The draw for the first round has us facing one of Verona or Pescara. Get past them and it’s either Cittadella, Salernitana or Belotti-less Torino in the Quarters. This sets up a likely semi against either Juventus or Roma, the former now managed by Mauricio Pochettino, presumably a surer hand for the Old Lady than the failed experiment of Pirlo.
We’re at home again for the visit of Atalanta once the international break is over. The only injury we’ve suffered is a sports hernia to Nikita Contini, a month’s layoff to a player who is far from crucial to our cause. Things are made worse in the first few minutes of the match, however, when Luca Pellegrini is forced off during his debut. A crunching tackle from Rafael Toloi sees the young left-back replaced and facing five to six weeks out with sprained knee ligaments. It’s especially a shame as seven Italians have been picked for our starting line-up.
The first half is an exercise in frustration. Despite playing with a balanced mentality, respecting the visitors’ ability to break in numbers, we pummel them. Gollini’s goal is leading a charmed life, the woodwork coming to his aid more than once while brittle defending breaks up a number of good attacks. Victor Osimhen is having little luck out there. More than capable of putting himself into one-on-one situations, his efforts go wide or are saved, all until the forty-ninth minute, when he finally produces a finish that billows into the bottom corner. Moments later, a corner is broken up, only for the ball to wind up back with Matteo Politano on the left flank. Advancing into the area and evading challenges, the winger puts himself to place his shot from an acute angle. It defies everyone and puts us 2-0 up. And that’s how it remains, a fine performance from the boys against a very good side that at times seemed intent on leaving more than just Pellegrini requiring treatment.
Our Champions League adventure begins with Ajax at the San Paolo. We clobbered them in pre-season and I hope they are just as easy in a competitive match. The Dutch visitors are of course one of the competition’s illustrious names. They might not have the cachet of the 1995 competition winning side, but their reputation for producing excellent young footballers (who soon get picked off by the vultures) remains intact. The one to really keep an eye on is Brazilian winger/forward Antony, 21 years old and having scored seven goals in six league fixtures this season. Lisandro Martinez is a top class ball playing defender who I’m kind of surprised is still here. They also sport two Partenopei who were sold to them by me, Kevin Malcuit and Faouzi Ghoulam.
Our victory here isn’t as impressive as the friendly that didn’t matter. Ajax showcase David Neres, the tricky winger who with millions more in the bank account we might have been interested in signing. The players react with visible fear each time he’s on the ball, however Alex Grimaldo is inspired at left-back and keeps him quiet, indeed we restrict the visitors to one off-target shot. Patrik Schick fires us into the lead shortly before the break, a great moment and particularly for him, as he arrived suffering the stigma of a ten-match non-scoring record. Hirving Lozano adds a second on the hour mark. Fabian’s cross is nodded on by Zielinski (having a busy and good game), and the Mexican actually rounds the keeper before slotting into the net.
In the Europa League we’d be handed a few hundred thousand for winning a group match. Here it’s £2.46 million. The board are very happy with that.
As Barcelona target Bentancur and Dybala is on Manchester United’s radar, we appoint Claudio Ranieri as a scout. It seems a bit weird to hire such a managerial legend to go out and source players for us, but there it is.
We’re away to Udinese at the weekend. Our record against them isn’t exemplary. While the Friulians shouldn’t be in our class and are a far cry from the team that once fielded Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale in the same team, they knocked us out of last year’s Coppa Italia and have a good history of nullifying our attack. I field the big guns, notably Insigne and Politano, in an effort to right that old wrong. Luca Gotti manages a fairly pedestrian side, though teenage midfielder Martin Palumbo is clearly a future star and is being scouted by us heavily. Obviously Udinese don’t want to sell him, but as his renown develops I expect Palumbo to exert some pressure of his own… That is, if he doesn’t turn into the new Di Natale, happy to be brilliant in a smaller side and resisting our overtures.
Can we get something from this one? Nope; Udinese’s bogey team status remains intact as we labour to a 1-1 draw. I think it’s all going to be okay when Eljif Elmas scores a first-half screamer, a real sign of what the young Macedonian can produce. Then it’s all undone by a moment of madness, when a routine pass back from Manolas to Meret leaves the keeper clearing it clumsily to forward Kevin Lasagna, who slams his shot into the top corner. Vexing stuff. I’m particularly disappointed with our keeper, ordinarily a figure of complete solidity but who costs us the victory here. Politano is today’s casualty, ruled out for a fortnight with a gashed upper leg. The upside is Mattia De Sciglio, who makes his debut and seals up the right-back role. Nothing passes him.
A new report reveals that we are the fifth highest at commercial income in Serie A. Our £39.5 million is dwarfed by the riches raked in by Juventus, obviously, but we’re slowly getting there. In midweek we are hosting newly promoted Cittadella. Finishing second in Serie B, this should be a home banker for us, and I’d love to see us do the business emphatically, with a note that often enough these games send the players to sleep.
I ring the changes for this one. Luperto plays at left-back to give Grimaldo a break. Izzo partners Garcia in the middle. Boga gets his debut for us on the left wing. The stage is set for a Hirving Lozano hat-trick. He’s playing on the right and tortures the visitors with three goals of incisive greatness. Stanislav Lobotka pops up with a headed finish from a corner kick, and Gaetano Castrovilli adds a fifth late in the game, his first for Napoli. Cittadella actually impress me. They aren’t very good, but they know how to compress space, which brings the best out of us as we need to thread our passes through the eye of a needle; all the same, the quality gap is plain to see, especially with our potency in attacking areas.
Brescia Calcio are based in Lombardy, so it’s another long trip northward for us on Saturday as we take on Diego Lopez’s newly promoted outfit. We’re facing Shakhtar in midweek and can, I think, afford to leave out a few of the big guns here. Insigne is the notable rested player, as Lozano starts on the left and later will be replaced with Boga. Focus however is on Sandro Tonali, a midfielder we signed in the summer from the Rondinelle. Nerves are his. Some players love coming up against their old teams and showing just what they can do. Others, like young Sandro, feel they have a lot to thank their alma mater for, what they’ve done for their personal development, but it’s character-building for him to be in our line-up.
Any concerns are wiped away in the eighth minute when Tonali scores from a direct free-kick, a wonderful effort that was taken from outside the penalty area. Victor Osimhen then scores two, the second from the spot and the first a lovely bit of opportunism as Mateju is dwelling on the ball in his box and is robbed by Orsolini, who provides the simple cross for the Nigerian to slot home. Riccardo Orsolini then scores on the hour mark. Ernesto Torregrossa pulls one back, arguably something they deserve as they have pressed with intent, but then Gaetano Castrovilli nets from another long-range effort to restore our four-goal cushion. 5-1 is an emphatic final score. I’m happy with just about everyone, particularly Grimaldo, Osimhen and Tonali. Lozano has one his lesser days and doesn’t complete the ninety. Garcia is at fault for Torregrossa’s reply; Izzo finishes the match in his place.
September finishes with Shakhtar Donetsk at home. Things look good domestically, where we have a one-point lead ahead of Juventus to head the table. The Turin giants seem to have the brakes off this season and look much better; we will need to stay ahead of them. It appears to me that so much of the Old Lady’s cause relies on Ronaldo. He’s leading the scoring charts once again, but if anyone can nullify him (and that’s asking a lot, in fairness) then is there much else to them? As for our Ukrainian opposition, this is a good chance to top the Champions League group. They will face us with new signing Divock Origi on their left wing, and Dodo at right-back, the latter a player we were scouting in the event that Di Lorenzo left. They’re good, Champs League regulars in fact, but the scouting report suggests that we are better.
Not that the first half demonstrates anything of the sort. It’s nervy and bitty; scoring chances come at a premium. 0-0 at the break and I’m telling the boys that I am displeased with them. Hirving Lozano listens to me, scoring a second half hat-trick that puts us completely in the driving seat. As the visitors pile forward in the last few minutes to find a reply, we break and Lorenzo Insigne scores his first of the campaign as a consequence of complete defensive confusion. The Ukrainians are good at injuring players. Zielinski is forced off early, fortunately for a negligible knock. Grimaldo fails to complete the game after an industrial Dodo challenge that leaves him with a bruised ankle. It could have been worse, but the absence of a fit, natural left-back will probably force me to be creative against Genoa.