Glory Hunter – Napoli: Summer 2021

One of my triggers over who to sell is working out what to do with players who are in the final year of their contracts. Here is the Napoli first team squad, arranged in contract expiry order, also showing their current earnings…

Only a massive loony wouldn’t try and sort out a new deal for Lorenzo Insigne, and this is duly dispatched. His agent seeks a £40,000 weekly pay-rise; I negotiate down to £20k, and this is accepted. Enzo agrees a three-year contract worth £31 million that will keep him with us until 2024. As for the others in their final years I’m frankly happy to let them go. Between them Mertens, Ospina and Mario Rui rob £258,500 from us on a weekly basis, more than thirteen million annually, the sort of sum that might even cause one of the Glazer brothers to shed a fat tear.

It’s a paradoxical brief of this transfer window that I seek to improve the team whilst also reducing our overall spend on salaries. That’s some ask, but my feeling is that there are a lot of players who are here earning high wages for not enough return. In my head I can sort of justify all those who are on six-figure weekly contracts. They add some value to the team. But Demme earning £81k? Maksimovic taking home more than fifty grand per week while taking a bit-part role? Not on my watch. The sums get even crazier in the Under 20s, where Adam Ounas gets £41,000 each week, while being on loan at Cagliari. Fair enough, the Sardinians are meeting most of that while he’s there, but it’s still a criminal splurge.

The aim is to hold my fire until the moment that loan deals come to a close, and then start trading on the horses. In other words, I want to bottom us out financially, see exactly how much I have to play with, before entering the market. With David Ospina agreeing terms with Fenerbahce a pitiful few million is added to the transfer pot (amounting to just under fifteen million – nice) with around £250,000 available in the wage budget. That’s not going to add up to much in terms of new talent, but I’m not beaten.

The European Championships start. Italy open their account with a 4-0 demolition of Croatia, Insigne and Politano leading the charge. Napoii have risen a few places in the European club rankings and now sit in twelfth place. Of Italian sides only the inevitable Juventus are ahead of us, well in front as it happens in third place. Bayern Munich top the lot; Barcelona nip at their heels.

We make our first signing of the summer with the free transfer of Eric Garcia. This Spanish centre-back, 20 years old and out of contract at Manchester City, is available on a free and we face stiff competition for his signature. A couple of big French clubs are into him and Arsenal also chance their arm, but we get our man in the end. Presumably offering him everything he wanted, plus the flowers, chocolates, underground contacts, etc, helped to smooth over the transaction. As a consequence I can now try and hawk out Maksimovic, a defender I don’t think is good enough for us. The Serb, who’ currently helping his country to get eliminated from their group at the Euros, is priced at £17.25 million. His wages are similar to what we will be paying Garcia, so selling him should keep the salary budget on an even keel.

On a lesser note, we agree to take another end-of-contract youngster, Marvin, from Real Madrid. He’s 20, a right winger, and while he isn’t ready for joining the first team just yet we are going to offer him out on loan. Napoli have so few good young prospects that anyone with a modicum of skill will enhance our ranks.

Our pre-season tour will be in New York, taking in games against NY, NYCFC and Philadelphia before the rather more important showcase of Barcelona in the European Super Cup, which will be held in Belfast. Ahead of any of that we have a warm-up against Carpi on 24 July, by which time I already hope to have much of my side rebuilt.

Nikola Maksimovic agrees a £17.25 million transfer to Roma. It never delights the supporters to see a player go to one of our rivals, but I don’t really rate him and I’m fairly happy with the deal. The Serb will replace Gianluca Mancini in their squad, the Roberto namesake departing for Chelsea in a £43.5 million arrangement.

Alongside Marvin, we arrange contracts for Fabio De VincenzoHans Nicolussi Caviglia and Joe Haigh, a trio of freebies who look as though they have some promise.  The three will bolster our youth ranks and may enjoy some time out on loan. Hopefully they will inject a bit of quality into a unit that hasn’t impressed me with its quality.

There are a number of returning loanees who I want to see shipped out. The exodus starts with Gianluca Gaetano, a very average winger, who’s off to Crotone for £1.1 million. Karim Zedadka goes to Perugia for some pocket change. Juve Stabia take Alessio Zerbin, and Alessandro Tutino is now a £525k signing for Benevento. The big name to lose here is Adam Ounas. The £43.5k weekly wage we’re paying him weighs on me like the criminal waste that it is. The Algerian agrees a £2.4 million move to relegated Everton, on whom he will confer what amounts to his services.

Mario Rui is in the last year of his contract with us and I have little interest in renewing it. His adventures in the European Championships for Portugal have been enough to drum up a little interest, and he winds up leaving for Porto. £13.5 million flows into the coffers. The other player on whom I need to make a decision is Dries Mertens. Club legend that he is, there’s no room for sentimentality. The 34 year old Belgian tailed off badly towards the end of the campaign and now strikes me as someone we would keep around for the simple reason of his status as a team leader. Another high earner, I could do with getting his salary off the books and so add him to the list. Arsenal have been on the sniff for a while and make the £7.75 million offer that takes him off our hands. This is an ‘end of an era’ thing. Insigne isn’t happy at losing a friend. I say some things and he says some things, and we get back to business.

I think I’ve said various times that defensive midfielder Diego Demme isn’t a player who fills me with delight. Someone who does is Sandro Tonali, back at Brescia after a fine loan season with Milan. The Rossoneri want Tonali back, but I snake in with an offer that amounts to £29 million with clauses and we get one of Italy’s brightest playing prospects. Demme goes to Arsenal, who know mediocrity when they see it and like what they’re looking at. The German is a £21.5 million capture for their reserves.

To replace Mario Rui I move into the loan market as alternatives are few and far between, so why not put the problem off for a year? Juve’s Luca Pellegrini joins for the season, earning considerably less than we were spending on the Portuguese and, I think, represents an improvement. Sassuolo’s Jeremie Boga has expressed his intention to leave and is on their transfer list. We could use his talents as a squad player and acquire the winger for £13.5 million. To bolster our midfield ranks we go after Gaetano Castrovilli, an advanced playmaker who plies his trade currently with Fiorentina. I’ve been an admirer for some time. £18.75 million covers it. Sebastiano Luperto returns from loan, a young centre-back who is capable of being promoted to the first team. With him added we now have the four homegrown at the club players that I have really wanted – Insigne, Contini and Izzo are the others.

Glory Hunter – Napoli 2020/21: The Squad

A review of the players who got us through this long and ultimately glorious season, in shirt number order…

1. Alex Meret
Age – Nationality: 24 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £14.25 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 34 (0) – 27
Average Rating: 7.13
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Regular starter who could still improve
Alex started the year as back-up to David Ospina and steadily wrested away the Colombian’s number one post. A great shot stopper who kept clean sheet after clean sheet, his year has ended with him being named our undisputed regular keeper, with an objective to usurp Donnarumma within the national set-up.

2. Giovanni Di Lorenzo
Age – Nationality: 27 – (10 caps)
Current Value: £26.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Right Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 24 (2) – 1 – 5
Average Rating: 7.26
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays resolute characteristics
Our first choice at right-back, Gio had a good year that was undermined by a string of niggling injuries. There were five separate lay-offs across the campaign, ranging from a couple of days’ out to a six-week lay-off with a broken toe. More a case of bad luck than anything chronic, though the pulled knee ligaments that are keeping him out while I write these words seem to be a recurring problem. Will this matter? Do Gio’s obvious qualities make the occasional lack of availability worthwhile? He was certainly valuable to us, with good crossing and a willingness to patrol his flank endlessly, just a shame it wasn’t more often.

3. Alex Grimaldo
Age – Nationality: 25 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £19 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left-Sided Complete Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 23 (1) – 0 – 2
Average Rating: 7.22
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good balance and ability on the ball
Like Di Lorenzo, Alex had occasional problems with injuries (we ended up brining in Santon to cover for a lengthy absence from the Spaniard). When available this new signing quickly asserted himself as the best in his position, an excellent dribbler and decision maker with a great passing range and the telepathic ability to pick out team-mates at will. I like him. He likes big matches. There’s a worrying note on his record that he has declined slightly as a footballer, however this could be a result of his two months out with torn thigh muscle that he suffered earlier in the year.

4. Kostas Manolas
Age – Nationality: 29 – (50 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £27 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (2) – 5 – 1
Average Rating: 7.29
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans like this player
Kostas has just completed his second season with the Partenopei, an important one as his regular partnership with Koulibaly became a brick wall at the back and rendered us close to impenetrable. The Greek international had an eye for goal also, his big frame making him an ideal target during set-pieces. Physically he’s close to miraculous. His mental numbers are great also, and though his overall technical levels suggest he’s a defender ultimately of the no-nonsense ilk there are few better.

5. Tiemoue Bakayoko
Age – Nationality: 26 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £25.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (3) – 1 – 2
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Hulking French DM who effortlessly overshadowed Diego Demme to become first choice for his role. ‘Tim’ is on loan from Chelsea, and we need to give him back because they want more for him than we can ever afford at this stage, though we have an eye on the lapse of his Blues contract in a year’s time. A big game player who trains well, is still improving and whose ambitions matched my own in the sense he always wanted to win, right up until the last moment, the only real negative was his disciplinary record. Six yellow cards and two reds, both for second bookings, an area of his game he must look to improve.

6. Kalidou Koulibaly
Age – Nationality: 29 – (49 caps, 2 goals)
Current Value: £46 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 44 (2) – 5 – 3
Average Rating: 7.32
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Star player in his prime years
One of our undisputed star players, ‘Kouly’ has just finished his seventh season with the club, gaining the captaincy and starting the most games for us out of the entire squad. Pretty much undroppable, the Senegalese revelled in his role and his partnership with Manolas; a brave and hardworking defender who never stopped toiling for the cause. Manchester United want him (again), and I would expect an offer far in excess of his value before considering letting him talk to them.

7. Eljif Elmas
Age – Nationality: 21 – (29 caps, 5 goals)
Current Value: £14.75 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Playmaker/Mezzala
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 25 (16) – 3 – 5
Average Rating: 7.04
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Could improve by a slight amount in the future
Considered to be the third best in our complement of central midfielders, Eljif ended up playing a lot of games without ever really advancing the case that he was critical to the cause. Fairly consistent and capable of great skill, the Macedonian was at his best when was supporting on either flank and provided some fine assists. Growing as a baller, particularly in his passing range, his final goals count was a little disappointing and I’m looking forward to seeing this improve.

8. Fabian
Age – Nationality: 25 – (13 caps, 3 goals)
Current Value: £48.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 32 (13) – 10 – 12
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Should be considered a leading Serie A player
Fabian blitzed my senses with his sheer virtuosity in the season’s early weeks. I thought I’d found the new De Bruyne, a complete midfield quarterback, and whilst it didn’t work out quite up to those dizzying heights he was nevertheless a key player for us. Undoubtedly world class, with the kind of passing ability that borders on the supernatural, and having scored ten goals for us from midfield, many of them absolute bangers, I feel lucky to have him on board. A class act.

9. Victor Osimhen
Age – Nationality: 22 – (13 caps, 8 goals)
Current Value: £23.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 26 (13) – 20 – 3
Average Rating: 7.04
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has explosive pace
Vic ended up being our top goalscorer, with twenty, many of those strikes coming in the early stages of the Europa League where he was allowed to run riot. Otherwise his brief was to wrest the leading striker’s role from Dries Mertens, which he indeed ended up doing, becoming the more reliable source of goals. For all that, he was an expensive acquisition for us. £64 million is a layout that is hard to justify, and I’m not sure Vic ever looked like he fit the bill as a world class striker. He’s young though, he’s definitely improving, and he possesses pace to die for.

11. Hirving Lozano
Age – Nationality: 25 – (44 caps, 13 goals)
Current Value: £21 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (both sides)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 25 (21) – 13 – 7
Average Rating: 7.02
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Ability to do the unexpected
Hirving’s second season with the club must be considered a success, though that isn’t without caveats. A smart, agile and tricky footballer who is equally comfortable on either flank, the Mexican scored some crucial goals for us and could dazzle the fans with his sheer guile. On the downside, his willingness to fight for the cause was in some doubt; he isn’t a strong player, and I understand he is wondering whether he should be moving to a so-called bigger club. I am tempted to let him go if a good offer comes in for him, say from the perpetually hovering Chelsea, for instance. He rarely suggested that Insigne was in any danger of losing his place in the team, that’s for certain.

12. Armando Izzo
Age – Nationality: 29 – (3 caps)
Current Value: £17.75 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 27 (0) – 2 – 1
Average Rating: 7.10
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a smart player
A relatively cheap acquisition by me at £11 million, Armando was brought in for two reasons (i) to provide good quality cover for our starting centre-backs (ii) he increased our homegrown cohort of first team footballers. There’s no doubt that he isn’t up to the standard of Koulibaly and Manolas, but he provided good service when he did start, which was mainly to give his peers a break, tackling cleanly and showing great determination in producing the food for his hometown team. He’s delighted to be here and we are happy to have him.

13. Mario Rui
Age – Nationality: 30 – (15 caps)
Current Value: £13.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 30 (3) – 1 – 6
Average Rating: 7.35
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Put in some really good performances recently
At first glance Mario didn’t impress me much. A small, bustling figure with a Musketeers moustache, everything about him seemed average. I signed Grimaldo to keep him out of the first team picture too often, but the Spaniard’s injury record landed him with a stack of appearances, during which he never let me down. A leader for whom the bigger the game the happier he is, the Portuguese has been impressive enough to get picked for his national team in the Euros, where it is suggested he will displace Guerreiro in the first eleven. Not a bad year’s work then.

14. Dries Mertens
Age – Nationality: 34 – (98 caps, 18 goals)
Current Value: £5.25 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 31 (11) – 16 – 13
Average Rating: 7.05
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Regular starter but may be past his best
A reliable performer in his eight seasons in Neapolitan blue, Dries is at last beginning to find his powers on the wane. Especially where his physical numbers are concerned the arrows are all pointing in the wrong direction, suggesting that his status as our starting forward is drawing to a close. On his day he could be very, very good; equally there were increasingly anonymous showings as he couldn’t keep up with the action, and by the end he was usurped by Vic Osimhen, which in many ways is exactly how it should be. Now entering the final year of his contract, the plan is to keep Dries around, largely as a back-up who can support the wings as well as attack, and to hope that he gets something from his twilight as a player coinciding with the club’s best years.

15. Riccardo Orsolini
Age – Nationality: 24 – (1 cap, 1 goal)
Current Value: £13.75 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 29 (19) – 10 – 10
Average Rating: 7.09
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Potential to be a leading Serie A right winger in the future
I signed Riccardo to play as the alternative on our right wing to Politano, and thanks to his sheer effervescence and injuries elsewhere he ended up playing a lot of football for us. While his numbers are good rather than excellent, the Ascolian had a fine first season playing at a higher level than he used to, his boyish enthusiasm and efforts to please slowly winning us all over. Fast and a fantastic dribbler, he has all the basics intact and now just needs to improve across the board.

16. Nikita Contini
Age – Nationality: 25 – (0 caps)
Current Value: £1.2 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: N/A
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Might not have the required ability or potential
Third choice behind Ospina and Meret, Nikita was never going to get much of a look in at the San Paolo and instead spent his year playing for the Under-20s, for whom he kept twenty clean sheets in thirty-one showings. Not bad at all, but the coaches feel that he is operating at Serie C level and ultimately may never make the grade. In the end, he’s here to pad out our homegrown numbers, but that’s about all there is.

17. Stanislav Lobotka
Age – Nationality: 26 – (32 caps, 3 goals)
Current Value: £12.25 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 24 (25) – 2 – 6
Average Rating: 6.97
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is a fairly loyal person
It took me a good long while to realise that Stan’s best position may not be in central midfield at all, but rather playing just behind as a DM. His starts there at the tail-end of the season suggested there’s something in that. He can pass really well, and his overall team play is highly valued. Against that are his deficiencies in attacking areas, his lower-than-average key pass count and the low number of assists he has provided. Maybe defensive midfield is his best role for the future.

18. Diego Demme
Age – Nationality: 29 – (1 cap)
Current Value: £9.5 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 28 (5) – 0 – 0
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A perfectionist who constantly strives for improvement
Despite the fairly high rating I’m ambivalent about Diego, notably the high aggression levels that earned him a slew of bookings. He played eighteen league games and racked up ten yellow, which amounts to more than one per every two appearances. All of which said, he’s a very hard worker with the sort of stamina that will keep him going for an age; plus he’s a good team player and a leader on the pitch. If I can find better out there then that might do for him, similarly if someone comes in with an offer I will be happy to gift wrap him for you, but he isn’t without his uses.

19. Nikola Maksimovic
Age – Nationality: 29 – (34 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £8 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Full-Back (Right)/No-Nonsense Centre-Back
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 14 (0) – 2 – 0
Average Rating: 7.30
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has a fairly sporting attitude
Try to look beyond the big numbers. Nikola was considered to be the last and least of our central defenders and was used sparingly, mainly in games against the kind of opposition where it was safe to drop the usual starters. The Serb’s ability to fill in at full-back proved to be occasionally useful, and his sheer size (he’s 6’ 4”) made him a unit in the middle, but overall he was a long way sort of the standard I’m looking for and he is surplus to requirements.

20. Piotr Zielinski
Age – Nationality: 27 – (60 caps, 7 goals)
Current Value: £29.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (8) – 4 – 10
Average Rating: 6.94
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a creative player
A long serving member of the squad (he’s been here since 2016) who has been a consistent starter throughout, Piotr is considered to be our second best starting midfielder. He’s a cultured baller, robust with only a couple of slight injuries on his record, and his propensity for trying killer balls makes him something of an assist machine. Technical and creative, and supremely comfortable on the ball, the Pole is an absolute asset and he’s lusted after by Barcelona, who will be required to dig deep if they wish to call on his services.

21. Matteo Politano
Age – Nationality: 27 – (12 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £35.5 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 28 (13) – 12 – 11
Average Rating: 7.34
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Direct free kicks
Sometimes I think I can see why Napoli are in poor health financially. Risky splurges on the likes of Osimhen look reckless and frankly without need, however occasionally they get it very right. Matteo is here on loan, with a £17.25 million permanent transfer from Inter arranged in the summer. The winger, largely unloved at the Giuseppe Meazza (Conte don’t do wingers!), thrilled from the start, scoring and creating with abandon, and he’s wonderful on set pieces. He’s been a revelation, a high-rated performer who has become a regular for his country whilst here. The only thing I don’t like is his high susceptibility to injury, with five separate incidents where he’s been ruled out throughout the course of the year.

22. Davide Santon
Age – Nationality: 30 – (8 caps)
Current Value: £3.9 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Wing-Back (both sides)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 9 (11) – 1 – 1
Average Rating: 6.82
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has shown early signs that he may be on the decline as a footballer
Signed on loan to buffer the loss of Grimaldo to a lengthy injury. Davide’s brief was to fill in where required and he largely met that requirement. A veteran full-back who works hard and brings good physical assets to the cause, he was also flexible and could fill in at either full-back role, however he was a long way short of the incumbent players. If any of the usual crew were available then they were preferred, which limited his appearances. The coaches believe that he’s on the wane, so he leaves with our thanks and an unwillingness to pay the £3.17 million buy-out clause to make his stay a permanent one.

23. Elseid Hysaj
Age – Nationality: 27 – (59 caps, 2 goals)
Current Value: £10 million
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Wing-Back (both sides)
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 32 (4) – 0 – 4
Average Rating: 7.26
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A current international with plenty of experience
I ended up rather loving this Albanian full-back, who came across as the junior to Di Lorenzo but wound up playing more games than he did (thanks to injuries) and could fill in just as consummately at left-back. Fit, fast and still improving as a player, the guy continually impressed me with his defensive awareness and his Duracell fitness levels, and I am resolved to keep him around. Various teams (Arsenal and Leicester) have been sniffing around, and I would expect them to pay through the nose if they are to take him from us.

24. Lorenzo Insigne
Age – Nationality: 29 – (41 caps, 10 goals)
Current Value: £42 million
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/False Nine
Appearances – Goals – Assists: 34 (17) – 16 – 9
Average Rating: 7.21
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans have a great affinity towards this player
Mr Napoli, and alongside Koulibaly and Fabian one of the three pillars of world class brilliance who helped to propel us to greatness this season. Our vice-captain, I stripped him of the captaincy because I’m not a fan of someone wearing the armband while playing so far forward, also I wanted him to focus on doing his funky thing on the wing. This is what he did, scoring very highly across the board, producing a very much above average number of shots, goals, assists and killer passes for someone in his role. Effortlessly better than Lozano and linking up supernaturally well with Dries Mertens, he’s a creative tour de force and he really cares about the team doing well. Replacing him, which we will have to do eventually, will be far from easy.

25. David Ospina
Age – Nationality: 32 – (110 caps)
Current Value: £9 million
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – clean Sheets: 24 (0) – 19
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Light-hearted and jovial character
A veteran keeper who has just finished his third season at the San Paolo, David used to be Arsenal’s choice when it came to cup competitions and became the same for us, slipping from his role as regular starter to play in Meret’s shadow. He isn’t especially happy about this, which is fair, however his rival is younger, Italian and probably all-round better overall. David played ten fewer matches and conceded the same number of goals (seven); admittedly many of these came in European competition against strong opposition. A decision has to be made, and in response to David’s complaint that he needs to be starting more games I have agreed to place him on the transfer list. My feeling is that there won’t be any shortage of interest, and I expect this to be the end of his time with us.

Glory Hunter – Napoli 2020/21: The Season That Was

The players have gone on their holidays or are off to represent their countries in South America and the European Championships. For me, it’s time to take a deep breathe, relax with a… whiskeycheap bottle of ginfour pack of beer… Pepsi Max, and look over what has just happened.

Glory Hunter Progress

I’m not here to advance the legacy of SSC Napoli, but my own pursuit of glory. In Season One I have added two trophies to the cabinet – the Serie A title and victory in the Europa League. In truth, the former was always on the cards if we achieved consistency against the kind of teams we should be able to beat, and that’s exactly what happened. The best Italian sides will always give us a game, but get beyond these and what’s left is a rump. I am a lot happier about winning the continent’s lesser cup competition. After a certain point it’s always a lottery. Injuries, fitness and the good old luck of the draw are factors, so it’s a pleasure to have got this out of the way so quickly.

Still, our failure in the Coppa Italia guarantees at least one more year in Italy. Not that I’m complaining. My reputation is improving along with my language skills, and despite some concerns about the ambition at the San Paolo it’s a good club to take charge of.

Season Review

A year featuring three trophies (don’t forget the Super Cup!) takes in the success of my signings. Riccardo Orsolini was the best. The right winger ended with a 7.09 average and ten goals, and on the cusp of making it into the Italian national team. Alex Grimaldo was excellent if troubled with injuries and Armanda Izzo achieved a 7.10 average across his twenty-seven appearances, always rotated for Koulibaly and Manolas and letting down neither player by replacing them.

While the board remain tight with their purse-strings Napoli’s reputation and their financial pulling power grew. A news item that was received shortly before the end of the campaign offered a hint to their attitude, as it was revealed we have the highest percentage of our turnover being spent on players’ wages within Serie A. That figure is 62%, and it’s a really unhealthy place to be. Clearly we either need to (i) cut costs (ii) increase our commercial income (iii) fill the stadium more. Perhaps now we are a Champions League club, things will begin to improve.

I am named Serie A Managers’ Manager of the Year, and if I say so myself it’s richly deserved. The fans name Koulibaly as their Player of the Year, again wholly warranted as everything was built on our ability to defend. Alex Meret, who has just signed a new contract, is the Young Player of the Season.

Records are broken. Meret has claimed the most clean sheets in a season, with a stonking twenty-seven. Matteo Politano wins the most Player of the Match awards, with seven, and for good measure is named Serie A’s best player. On the downside, Diego Demme is our dirtiest baller, picking up fourteen yellows and one red. That’s quite impressive considering he played second fiddle to Bakayoko.

Andrea Belotti is the division’s top scorer, with a smashing 29 strikes. That’s a really good haul, putting Mertens – the Neapolitan who finished highest in Serie A – with a shabby 15 in the shade. Jordan Veretout is the highest rated player, which leads to the player requesting to be transfer listed and courting the attentions of Manchester United. We are credited with having both the signing of the season (Orsolini) and the worse, in poor old Alex Grimaldo. It’s such an undeserved claim to fame. When not injured, he played really well for us.

Claudio Zanchetta of the Italian Football Free Press writes ‘It was a superb season for the Partenopei as they claimed the title to back up their pre-season credentials.’ Honeyed words from Claudio, though we were third favourites as I recall, with Juve tipped for another year of domination.

Talking of whom, Andrea Pirlo is sacked by the Old Lady and they’re looking for a new sucker. I’m not tempted, indeed the vacancy that does attract me momentarily is the hot seat at Everton. The Toffees have worked through Ancelotti and later Howe, and neither manager is able to save them from relegation from the Premier League. I have spent my entire life knowing Everton as a top flight club, sometimes a good one, and the prospect of lifting a grand old club back to the top has its sense of promise. Maybe another time.

Staying in England, Manchester United claim the Premier League ahead of Liverpool and Man City. Ronald Koeman proves to be success at Barcelona, lifting La Liga while Real Madrid can manage nothing better than fifth place. Lionel Messi is at his best here, scoring a staggering 8.02 average across the campaign. What a GOAT. In Germany, Bayern Munich lift the Bundesliga crown at an even earlier point than we manage, thanks as much to the ordinariness of the opposition as their brilliance. I would like to talk about an upset in France, however there isn’t one. Paris Saint Germain win by more than twenty points ahead of Lille. Barcelona beat Chelsea via the penalty shootout lottery to claim the Champions League.

Available top-flight jobs are:

  • England – Everton and Tottenham
  • France – Monaco and Nimes
  • Germany – Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig
  • Italy – AC Milan, Juventus and Torino
  • Spain – Celta Vigo, Real Madrid, and Villarreal

For my part, I am considered to be very secure at the San Paolo, though the board expects me to deliver more entertaining football in the future. I have a 3.5 star rating (fairly good), with strong characteristics in media handling, tactical consistency and managing finances. I still haven’t fully learned the Italian language, but my semaphore is crazy good.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: May 2021

The league is done. We have five fixtures remaining but the only competition that really matters now is the Europa League, where we have a return leg against Arsenal to play and a hopeful place in the grand finale. It’s in an uncaring mood that we travel to Udinese for one of those remaining commitments. A squad is picked on the basis that none of these starting players will take the field in midweek, and a 0-0 draw in which the only player beyond the defence who comes out of it with any credit is Orsolini. Dries Mertens is notably bobbins. I tell him to pick up his form; thankfully he agrees that it’s been an issue.

On to Arsenal then, our date with destiny. The visitors help us out when centre-back Gabriel is sent off for a second yellow early in the tie. They create little and rack up fouls as though they are going out of fashion. We score four goals and make it look very, very easy. Victor Osimhen and Fabian put us two up in the first five minutes. Matteo Politano scores an excellent solo effort in the second half before Riccardo Orsolini adds the cherry on top deep into injury time. It’s surprising just how good we are when we care and something is on the line. Politano claims the match ball but Fabian and full-back Hysaj could make just as good a case for themselves. On our day, teams can’t live with our pace, our pressing and the potency of our counter-attacks. The Gunners melt away. We will take on Milan in an all-Italian final, after they knock out CSKA Moscow.

Parma at home are next. They are seventeenth, very much in the relegation picture, and it’s impossible to think that they won’t be more invested in our league encounter than we are. Things go wrong in the first half when we’re knocking the ball about in their half and then a mis-pass from Izzo sees Andreas Cornelius in possession and haring off towards our goal. Powering beyond the last man he places his shot in the bottom corner to put Parma in the lead. This wakes up our two-thirds full ground into issuing the boos, and also unlocks the chip in Dries Mertens’s head that ensures he reacts to my bollocking. When we win a penalty after Lozano is clobbered in the area he makes no mistake with his kick. Before the half is done the Belgian has made it 2-1, released via a long ball and putting his shot beyond Sepe. We are more than capable of holding on to that scoreline, consigning  Parma to yet another defeat in what for us is a meaningless contest.

Despite the result, and the fact we have now broken the record for Napoli victories within a single season, there are concerns. Eljif Elmas, for me one of the squad’s more promising members, should be using this stage to show me his worth. He isn’t. Hirving Lozano has been terrific in Europe, less so in Italy. The form of Stanislav Lobotka is also on my radar. Producing little in Serie A, I wonder whether his future should be in defensive midfield, or if it’s time to hawk him out to one of those Chinese clubs that have their wallets open in his direction.

We’re hosting Benevento in midweek, not the sort of fixture that will coax Neapolitans out of their homes. They have done enough to guarantee survival, so this has all the makings of a nothing game, the sort of end of season commitment played between sides with little investment in what happens. The opposition are rubbish and we coast through to a 2-0 victory, with goals from Hirving Lozano and Stanislav Lobotka (playing at DM and doing well). What they are good at is fouling. By the end Benevento have had two players sent off and injured three of mine. Di Lorenzo is out for a fortnight with pulled knee ligaments. Lozano has a gashed lower leg, thanks to the enthusiastic studs of Foulon. Worst of all is the fractured wrist suffered by Alex Grimaldo, which close to ends his season. Thanks Filippo Inzaghi, and your disgusting team. I criticise his side’s dirty play in my post-match presser. He doesn’t care; what a classy guy.

We have now racked up 94 points for the season, which is a new team record. There’s no catching up with the Serie A record high, which was recorded by Juventus back in 2013/14 and a 102 points haul. At the weekend we’re away at AS Roma, the sort of tricky fixture that makes me happy the outcome doesn’t matter very much. I’m an admirer of them. A number of their players would fit very well within my side’s ranks – Mancini, Pellegrini, Veretout, Zaniolo. Hell, I’d even take Amadou Diawara, the defensive midfielder who was once part of the Napoli set-up and would count as homegrown if he was to return. I’m advised to watch out for Edin Dzeko, which I’m grateful for as I wouldn’t have considered it otherwise.

Roma beat us at home earlier in the campaign, and I’m worried about letting them do the double over us. I needn’t have. Despite playing with a balanced mentality, watching out for anything they can throw at us, especially from wily veteran Pedro, we run out 3-0 winners. Victor Osimhen and Kalidou Koulibaly both put us ahead, then the home side effectively concede the game when Zaniolo is sent off for a second yellow. Fabian produces a late, long-range strike of pure golden wonder to put a seal on the result, and to provide him with his tenth of the campaign. The Spaniard was outstanding in the season’s early passes, less so recently, but it’s here that he reminds me just how good he can be.

Inter Milan beat Udinese 2-0 in the Italian Cup Final. Not winning this competition will keep me rooted in Italy for at least another year. Honestly, some of the gloss has worn off with the lowly transfer budget that I have to work with. It’s as though I am being penalised for our success. Some creative accountancy will be required over the summer, I reckon.

I promise to put on a show for the supporters in our league season finale, a home tie against Sampdoria. There’s beef here. La Samp cancelled their affiliation with us some months ago, which I have chosen to take personally and now hope we bury them. The possibility that winning here will get them relegated would rub their noses in it quite nicely. In reality, the side is rotated because we’re playing the Europa League Final in a few days’ time. This is very much a second string eleven, one that still has the muscle to prevail 2-1 on the day. Riccardo Orsolini and a rare set-piece goal from Nikola Maksimovic see the Genoese comers off, and they save just a little face by producing a late response by Mikkel Damsgaard. Not a bad way to sign off a season’s work, and not a terrible following with more than 41,000 filling the San Paolo. The gaps of naked blue seats aren’t quite so noticeable today.sa0521.png.f20006cb23e445a0e5b80518e74e7349.png

Victory leaves us with a three-figure finish for the campaign, rather a superb show of domination on the whole. Sampdoria save their bacon, while Parma – still our affiliate – return to Serie B with Crotone and Spezia. I’m so pleased with the way this table looks. The ‘Goals For’ column shows that we were far more attacking than we were given credit for, but it’s in the defensive numbers where we really shine. Seven conceded across thirty-eight matches is a staggering achievement; man mountain Koulibaly deserves so much credit for his work, as does Manolas, and Meret in goal.

It’s always nice to finish with a cup final. We’re in Gdansk, Danzig in old money, to take on AC Milan in the showpiece of the Europa League. The fact this stadium isn’t anything like as nice or big as our home grounds is lost on neither team. Despite our less than thrilling record against the Rossoneri I feel confident coming in to this one. We’re in good form. Our opposition aren’t. They’re missing one or two key players, principally Hakan Calhanoglu who had the capacity to torture us from the number ten position. Brahim Diaz replaces him; not as terrifying, in my opinion. All the same, Donnarumma is never a fun prospect to overcome. Milan protect their young number one with Kessie and Bennacer in defensive midfield, with good defenders like Romagnoli and Kjaer in shielding roles. I anticipate a close contest.

The fun starts in the twenty-first minute. Politano takes a free-kick just outside their penalty area. Kostas Manolas somehow beats the offside trap and toe pokes the ball into the near corner, a delightful training ground goal that leaves Calabria looking devastated. After that we play an evenly matched game. The red and black shirts have their moments. Especially predatory is Zlatan, but Koulibaly sees it as a personal mission to stop the Swede from adding to his legend, and with their totemic forward neutralised Milan are much reduced. They defend well also, keeping us at bay even though Osimhen looks lively and former Inter man Politano is living to punish his old rivals. In added time, with the score still 1-0 and Milan piling forward, we get a break and Hysaj fires a cross into the box. Hirving Lozano gets ahead of Musacchio and heads beyond Donnarumma into the far corner of his net. We’ve done it!

Glory Hunter – Napoli: April 2021 (Part Two)

On paper, the next fixture is arguably our toughest – Juventus in Turin. Perhaps in times past this would indeed have been the case, back when Conte and Allegri were cracking heads with their juggernaut of a football club. Under Andrea Pirlo they have slipped. I think the diplomatic phrase here is ‘in transition’. The crazy part is that each of the players we face ought to have the quality to wipe our noses in it and then romp the league – Buffon, Chiellini, Merih Demiral, De Ligt, Alex Sandro, Bernadeschi, Ramsey, McKinnie, Ronaldo, Kulusevski, Dybala. Even their bench – featuring Danilo, Rabiot, Morata, Bonucci and Cuadrado – makes for a tasty dish. As it is we win 4-0, a tie that is even where the numbers are concerned, however better finishing, a greater sense of urgency and an eye on the prize make the difference. Matteo Politano and Kostas Manolas score our first half goals. As Juve try to press us in the second Hirving Lozano produces a quick brace to add the cherry to the icing of victory here. The gap between our teams is up to twenty-three points. Surely we can’t blow it now.

Taking a 3-0 lead to Olympiakos in Greece should make our progression to the Europa League Semi-Final simple enough. Just play carefully and we ought to be through. After a quiet first period, which I’m happy enough to witness, Eljif Elmas fires us into the lead shortly after the break. But then Mohamed Mady Camara conjures an equaliser, and even at 4-1 up I start to feel the pressure. Should I have fielded a stronger eleven…? The home side roar into action, trying to generate some excitement for their 32,000 supporters. Ultimately though, we are the better team. Riccardo Orsolini, the game’s most creative presence, puts us back in front, and then substitute Lorenzo Insigne comes on for the wasteful Lozano and produces the sort of shot that no one keeps out.

6-1 on aggregate then, and we will be taking on Arsenal in the semi, after they’ve seen off Leicester by a combined score of 7-4. Get past the Gunners and the Final, to be played in the Energa Gdansk in Poland, will feature either CSKA Moscow or AC Milan.

Back to Serie A, and the most insipid of 0-0 draws on a sunny afternoon at the San Paolo. In some ways I’m relatively sanguine about this. Our visitors are Atalanta, second in the division and the nearest thing we have to a title challenger. They also aren’t as good as us, and memories of our romped victory at their place linger as we fail to produce anything like as good a performance. We dominate, but Atalanta defend well, have a Man of the Match in dogged midfielder Marten de Roon, and Neapolitans go home shrugging their shoulders.

What we have done is guarantee Champions League football next season. Clearly we want more than that but meeting the board’s goal means that they can set our budgets for the forthcoming campaign. The wage budget is increased by a few hundred grand; we can now spend £2.6 million per week. It’s disappointing to learn that they have allocated me with £13.91 million to spend on transfers. It isn’t entirely unfair given the club’s balance is now a few million in the red, but the lack of ambition is a shame. Had I achieved this in the Premier League at a similar sized set-up then riches would be mine. On the plus side, there isn’t very much that we need, and that’s kind of fortunate because I don’t have much to change things around.

By now, only Juve and Atalanta can possibly catch us. They can finish on 82 and 84 points respectively. We on the other hand are sitting pretty on 81. Four points from seven remaining fixtures will seal the title for Napoli, leaving us the freedom to focus on Europe, and with Verona (away) and Crotone at home to come we should be in a position to wrap up our affairs quickly. Hellas have had a good year. They’re in seventh place and are competing for continental qualification, but we’re better and I let the players know in no uncertain terms that we ought to come away from Marcantonio Bentegodi with all three points. Some of them have the cheek to be furious with this announcement. Snowflakes.

The night before our game Juve lose at home to Roma 2-1, which removes them from the title equation. Atalanta win though, so it will take more than a victory at Verona to make things official. There’s no real urgency to get the result, similarly there are few excuses for the half-cocked work we put in during the first half. The players are in a complacent mood, feeling that they’re invulnerable, and I make it clear at the break that better is expected. Shortly after kick-off, we win a corner. Politano puts in the kick, and Kalidou Koulibaly is there to nod home. A little while later, Lorenzo Insigne is criminally unmarked at the far post when the cross floats in and he’s left with the simplest of finishes. It isn’t a match for the hipster aesthetes out there, but it’s effective and does the job.

At the weekend we have Crotone at home. The visitors are in nineteenth place and look frankly doomed, not quite as bad as Spezia – who have fifteen points to their credit – but it will take a bit of a miracle for them to prevail. Atalanta are away to Roma, a fixture I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Their game takes place on the day before ours, so if we keep our fingers crossed, stroke passing black cats, etc, it might all be over by the time we take to the field. It isn’t. The Goddess pulls off a 3-1 win at the Olimpico, courtesy of a Luis Muriel hat-trick, so we still need to grab that point. Also on my mind is the Arsenal game in several days’ time. I want to put a good side out for that one, so I am depending on some of the lesser lights to get us over the line against Crotone.

The match is a slog. We rack up twenty-four shots to the visitors’ sole effort, and enjoy more than two-thirds possession, like the little Manchester City lot that we are, however it’s decided by a single goal, Hirving Lozano finding the net after eighteen minutes. It’s difficult to say how many more we should have had. Put it down to a combination of dogged defending, luck, a dash of complacency and operating in first gear, perhaps. Not that it matters. At the end we’re shaking hands with the bigwigs of the Italian FA and given custodianship of the Serie A trophy.

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As a charming bonus for clinching Serie A, £1.8 million is sliced off my transfer budget. This is due to Napoli paying that sum of money to Bordeaux as part of the deal to sign Adam Ounas. The player in question is an Algerian winger who we signed several years ago, has since largely failed to make the grade and is currently on loan with Cagliari. To summarise, I’m being punished for someone I didn’t sign and who I don’t want. Groovy.

April rounds off with a trip to London and our Europa League Semi-Final against Arsenal. Now managed by Marcelo Bielsa after the sacking of Arteta, the Gunners look destined to finish in their worse position for years and years. Currently eighth, out of reach of the Champions League places and frankly drifting, they’ve lost almost as many matches as they have won. For all that, there’s plenty of talent here. Especially notable is the contribution of young tyro Bukayo Saka, an effervescent livewire on the wing who can create something from next to nothing, an alchemist in other words.

As though to underline the comparative excellence of the Premier League, we manage not a single shot in the first half as Arsenal put us to the sword. We look tired and laboured, while the home team seem intent of taking out all the frustrations of their season out on us. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazette look full of slippery movement, sending my defenders spinning in their wake, however they don’t open their account until the hour mark when Koulibaly concedes a penalty and the Gabonese forward slots coolly to Ospina’s left. Forced to play with a more positive mentality, Victor Osimhen snatches one back and then Kostas Manolas finally puts us in front when he heads in from Mario Rui’s corner kick. But Arsenal don’t deserve to lose, and some late sustained pressure reaps its reward when Dani Ceballos produces an equaliser. 2-2 is a very promising scoreline to take back to Italy, considering the strength of the opposition.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: April 2021 (Part One)

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.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: March 2021

The schedule continues to play merry hell with us. Thanks mainly to our continued participation in the Europa League we continue to play two games per week, which is heavy work and demands constant scrutiny of the risk assessment and continual squad rotation. Eleven Neapolitans are now considered to be at high risk of picking up an injury. Sometimes players getting knocks is just part of the game. It happens. But I can exacerbate the problem, and in swapping the boys in and out of my starting line-up I hope to minimise the possibility of making things worse.

PSV Eindhoven are first up, at home for this leg. Their manager Roger Schmidt, one of the sexy new breed of German head coaches, plays a Tiki-Taka style, which makes them quite similar to ourselves. The scouts think they aren’t as good as we are, similar in terms of attacking figures but leakier in defence. This is probably borne out when I look at their forward line, which pairs Mario Gotze – scorer of the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final – with young gun Donyell Malen. A fine pair of players for my defenders to cope with.

Victor Osimhen and Kalidou Koulibaly both score during a quick first half double, and then we get to spend most of the match holding off the Dutch response, which is more muted than I might have expected. They get very little time or space in our half, and their best effort is a Van Ginkel dip from close range that Ospina deals with via his legs. It finishes 2-0, a decent lead to take back to the Netherlands, though it could have been better with Lozano especially wasteful with his opportunities; perhaps he was conscious of producing too much against his old team.

It’s back up to northern Italia on Sunday to take on Sassuolo. The Watermelon Peel are resolutely mid-table, going nowhere, and I expect a victory here, especially as they are missing so many first team players, including Napoli target Domenico Berardi. I get it too. After dealing with some early home team forays that are more of the hit and hope variety than artistic Lorenzo Insigne fires past Consigli from an incisive break along the entire length of the pitch. A Marlon own-goal just after the half-hour mark makes it 2-0, and we can even afford to watch the keeper save from Mertens’s weak penalty kick without losing too much perspiration. As Sassuolo try to rally in the second period, Matteo Politano volleys into the top corner to put the seal on our victory. The home team resort to foul play and grabbed chances, and luckily we emerge without any fresh injuries.

The return leg against PSV turns into something of a classic for the neutral. Not for me, though; for me it’s horrible, a roller-coaster in which the Dutchmen look at times like ripping up our lead. It’s all going so well when Hirving Lozano gives us the lead shortly before half-time, but then the home side come roaring back. Eran Zahavi places his shot into the bottom corner moments before the whistle and then they score again early in the second via Marco van Ginkel’s admittedly lovely volley. At this moment I can only sense a defeat. Davide Santon has started well, putting in a gloriously timed challenge to part Gotze from the ball in the penalty area, a pinpoint tackle, but he’s beginning to wilt under pressure. Armanda Izzo is especially bad. Koulibaly comes on to shore things up at the back. Also on the field by now is Lorenzo Insigne, who scores in the eighty-second minute to square the scoreline on the night. He goes off injured shortly after that, a twisted knee that will keep him out for the best part of a week, and then Malen scores, a goal that is mercifully ruled offside.

So we prevail, 2-2 and 4-2 on aggregate. What looks like a straightforward passage to the Quarter-Final has in fact been anything but; PSV put us through the wringer here. The million-pound bonus for crossing the line is quite nice. The draw for the quarters is also, I think, relatively kind. We get Olympiakos. Overcome them, and it’s Arsenal or Leicester in the Semi-Final.

A double-header of ties against Rome-based, Serie A challengers follows. Lazio first, then Roma. The sky blue half of the capital are in fourth place, and in Luis Alberto have an attacking midfielder of real quality, a ‘must sign’ according to my scouts, who obviously know the location of the £100 million war chest we would need to spend on him, because I certainly don’t. Luis or not, we should be able to win and I am optimistically going with the thought that we have a particularly good record when we play against similarly talented option. And win we do. The game is more end-to-end than I would like. They actually have more shots than we do, and at times we seem content to come out on top of the yellow card count rather than the match. That said, Immobile is injured for the visitors. Calcedo plays. He’s handy rather than a scoring ace, and we have Dries Mertens, who is impossible to play against on his day. This is one of those occasions when he struts his funky stuff, scoring two goals – both involving a good deal of skilful approach play – to make the difference.

A chance to breathe, and then we give the stadium a quick lick and polish so that we can welcome AS Roma. The scouts rave about the side in fifth place but suggest that they’re especially weak in goal. Alisson Becker used to occupy their net. These days it’s Antonio Mirante, an ancient Italian whose best spells came with Parma and Sampdoria. We need to be respectful towards their wily, aging forwards, Edin Dzeko and Pedro, while young centre-back Gianluca Mancini could be on our summer shopping list.

This one goes ill for us. A weight of fatigue has settled into our play, heroes like Mertens completely failing to lift his game once again. It looks as though the She-Wolf is in the same predicament, but very late on a long throw from Smalling finds Dzeko in the box and his scoring feet do the rest. A home defeat, one played before a rare capacity crowd. Way to send them home smiling…

A battered and bruised set of Blues heads off to Genoa for our last fixture of the month before the international break takes over. Threatened with relegation and in very real danger of drifting listlessly towards their destination, the team that is nicknamed the Old Fool without irony should be due a whupping, but I’m happy to take any kind of win at the Luigi Ferraris. It isn’t pretty but we do it, a training ground move that finds Politano crossing for Victor Osimhen and the big Nigerian producing a moment of magic with his feet. For the home side, taking on a haunted look as though staring into the headlights of Serie B, it’s turgid and mired in dirty play. They haul on Goran Pandev to try and make a difference. The Macedonian relic, a throwback to more glorious times for Italian football, hasn’t scored a goal in twenty-eight appearances this term and never comes close to changing that here.

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Despite messing up against Roma we have opened a fifteen-point gap in the division. Napoli can finish no lower than seventh, which pretty much guarantees a prolonging of our continental adventures in 2021/22, however we are gunning for an altogether bigger prize.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: February 2021

Lyon really want Elseid Hysaj and pepper us with transfer bids as the window draws to its close. The Albanian isn’t interested and, with fit and ready full-backs in short supply, neither am I, so I am happy to reject their last offer, which amounts to £13.25 million. Real Hispalis’s effort to pay good money for Andrea Petagna is a different matter. Our third-choice striker isn’t good enough, I feel, and their final offer of £6 million represents a chance to cash in on someone who last appeared against Milan in the league and did precisely nothing. The transfer money’s okay but the saving on his £59k weekly salary is like gold dust to us. I need to address our issue at the back, namely the loss of Grimaldo that will see him out throughout all of February and most of March. Davide Santon is on Roma’s transfer list. I have no interest in signing him outright, but getting him on loan for the season’s remainder is definitely of interest to me and that’s exactly what I arrange.

Elsewhere there are rumours, gossip, especially about the ‘Insigne to Liverpool’ non-story, but nothing solid, and by and large I escape the transfer window intact. Money’s tight at the San Paolo. This needs to be viewed in relative terms. There’s a plethora of sides in real financial danger, which we aren’t, but my hope would be to make large-scale upgrades to the squad in the summer and I’m not sure that I will get that opportunity, not without first selling one of our crown jewels, like Fabian de Bruyne or Lorenzo Insigne, and quite frankly I would rather not go down that particular road. I fully expect that we will be in the red by the end of the season, at which point prize money and sponsorship income will make all the difference. An effort by the supporters to haul their sorry arses into the ground on a consistent basis would amount to a very nice bonus. We’re all in this together.

Another packed month of football follows. We will be playing just four league games, but there’s also the two-legged Italian Cup semi-final, and the resumption of Europa League hostilities with Lille on the horizon.

We go into the Udinese cup game at home with Eljeif Elmas an injury doubt, courtesy of a pulled groin (don’t ask), and Riccardo Orsolini has been sent home with a cold. Juve and Inter come to an indecisive 0-0 draw in Turin, which sounds like fun. We’re hopeful of a big result here, and my fingers are crossed for Giovanni di Lorenzo, back in the starting line-up for the first time since early December.

I’ll confess that I didn’t think the semi would coax such a nervy performance out of us. In my head Udinese are here to be steamrolled, but it’s a tense and uncomfortable occasion. The one highlight is a lofted long pass from Fabian that finds Victor Osimhen in line with the opposition defence. The Nigerian’s sweet volley does the rest, however despite piling on the pressure we can’t produce anything further and it finishes 1-0. At least we don’t concede, I reason, but for me this ought to have been more emphatic.

I sometimes think we’re at our best in potentially tough encounters. Such is our away day at Fiorentina, which produces a 4-0 victory and an effervescent performance. It’s also a bit vexatious. In my mind constantly is the need to find alternatives for Dries Mertens. Now 33 and surely on the slide, my hope is to slowly ease Osimhen in at his expense, which seems like the obvious thing to do. However, when the Belgian produces an afternoon’s work like the one he conjures up here – two goals, one a brilliant dribble through the defence before slotting home, and two assists – it feels as though I’m back at the drawing board. Obviously, the problem of a brilliant aging forward isn’t really a problem at all, and I’m grateful to him for his brilliance. Lorenzo Insigne and Matteo Politano also make the scoresheet, while the Viola, including Ribery, are reduced to scraps.

For my part, I would happily take easing through the cup games for solid victories in Serie A. In midweek we’re off to the far north-east of Italy for the return Italian Cup leg against Udinese. The town of Udine is pretty indeed, particularly the medieval centre, but we aren’t here for fun and as it is the game is played in sub-freezing conditions. An eerie and still atmosphere of deep cold, which isn’t what we are used to as southern softies, used to working in balmy Mediterranean climes, but oh well.

We’re bad here. The home side go ahead through Rodrigo de Paul, to tie the contest, and then laugh at us as we fail to find a reply. Even when the goal-scorer tries to help by being sent off for two yellows we still can’t find a way through. This is the group of players that put four past Fiorentina, past Juventus for crying out loud, and we’re rendered weirdly toothless. I make my changes, still nothing. We go to extra time, no goals and indeed the best opportunity falls to Udinese’s Deulofeu who thankfully shoots straight at Ospina. Then penalties, and a saved effort from Elmas that sends us cascading out of the cup. Had we gone through via the lottery I still wouldn’t have been especially happy; as it is we have suffered a real blow.

Maybe playing in conditions that aren’t natural to us makes a difference. One thing for certain is that shouldn’t be a factor when we come to take on Bologna at the San Paolo, in the twenty-second match of our league campaign. There’s a need for us to stay on track, to not let the bad result at Udinese have an adverse effect on everything else, especially to not give time and space to Roberto Soriano, the Bolognese attacking midfielder who counts as their star man.

Bologna come to defend. They’re decent at it, holding on to the ball greedily when they have it, trying thoughtfully to bring Soriano and Viviano into the action to make something happen. But when Fabian crosses for Dries Mertens’s lashed in opener on thirteen minutes the evening is ours. Matteo Politano and Lorenzo Insigne pad out their accounts in the first half, and Riccardo Orsolini adds a fourth against his old team late on to seal a grand victory. The fans are loving life at the end of this one, just a shame that more of them don’t come to the stadium to express their pleasure.

Lille in the Europa League are next. We’re playing the away leg first, up near the Belgian border and nervous about taking on a good French outfit. They’re second in the evocatively named Ligue Un Uber Eats – no prizes for guessing who’s top – and in midfielder Renato Sanches sport a player who commands respect. We’re also concerned about the possible impact of Ikone, one of three Lille attacking midfielders named Jonathan, along with the raw potential of Timothy Weah, George’s boy. It turns out they aren’t nearly as good as those names suggest. What they are skilled at is dirty play, a flood of bookings and Orsolini going off with what emerges as a fractured toe and up to three weeks out. Victor Osimhen finds the single strike that decides the game. Some crisp passing moves between the Nigerian and Lozano ends with the striker having the simplest of finishes.

Two days later and we’re on our travels again, this time to Spezia in Liguria, the north-west of Italy, or the upper thigh if you will. Our destination is a pretty coastal city, which also serves as the country’s naval base, hence the number of macho types, chests puffed out as though Maradona is everywhere. Their team is in nineteenth place, seemingly destined for the drop though morale has been raised with a 2-1 victory over the even more hapless Crotone. Either way, there are no excuses for not doing well here.

Whenever we take on a side we’re expected to beat soundly a sort of malaise creeps into the players, as though they think they can go to a place, hold out their hands and declare ‘Points please.’ Sometimes it works because the gulf in quality is plain to see. Victor Osimhen heads us a goal in front late in the first half, and that’s how it remains, however without the cushion of a bigger lead the rest of the proceedings take on an edgy quality. It’s fortunate perhaps that the Aquilotti have very little in the tank and no presence on the flanks, so we can still claim a routine 1-0 result, and I suppose in the end that’s what matters, but I would like to see more joy in our play. As it is I’m made to praise our defence in the post-match conference, whereas in reality they have had little to do.

More nerves to be held in the Europa League home return leg against Lille. We’ve brought a 1-0 lead back and progression is completely in our hands; additionally I’m keen to grasp whatever monies we can reap from the continent’s lesser competition. A bumper crowd shows up for this one, which seems to have an energising effect as a largely second string eleven pulls the French team apart. We’re 4-0 up at the break, the pick a long range volley from Stanislav Lobotka that ripples the back of the net satisfyingly. Five minutes are on the clock when that happens.

Our 5-0 aggregate victory gives me hope that we’ll go far in the competition. The prize money of, er, £456,000, is quite nice, I guess. The downsides are the injury to Hysaj, the consequence of more physical play from Lille, which fortunately isn’t worth more than a day or two’s rest. Demme picks up his routine yellow card; his most recent misdemeanour suspends him from playing in our next Europa League adventure. This will be against PSV Eindhoven. We’ve avoided Arsenal (who have sacked Arteta recently); they get OGC Nice. Milan will face Marseille.

On the last day of February we’re entertaining Cagliari. They’re in mid-table, and once again we are firm favourites with the usual caveats and concerns about taking them seriously. I’m advised that the opposition play a Route One style, which seems to be the sort of throwback that the twenty-first century should more or less have abolished. The system works, though. They’re Serie A’s sixth highest goalscorers, albeit highly porous at the back. I’m starting to see why the attendances drop for games like this. It’s largely highlight-free, Hirving Lozano scoring the goal that splits the teams while Mertens and Politano are at their most diffident. The visitors don’t get a shot on target.

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As the old cliché goes, it’s the result that counts. This one helps to increase our lead in the division, with a twelve-point gap opening to Atalanta. It’s a long way from being over, particularly if Juve start hoovering up the wins, but that’s exactly what we’re doing and to me it doesn’t feel as though we will drop enough points to choke the league. Manolas and Koulibaly are named in the Serie A team of the month, and that shows precisely where the core of our strength lies. We’ve conceded four goals all season, an average of one for every six games, which by anyone’ standards is fairly awesome.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: January 2021

After an uneventful break, we’re back in early January with a home game to play against eleventh-placed Udinese. It’s nearly time for the January transfer window, and a number of my first team players are attracting admiring glances from elsewhere. Here’s a quick look at who’s wanted and what I think (very briefly) of the possibility of them leaving.

It should be a heresy to consider letting Mertens go, but on my mind are his high wages, the chance to make a quick buck, his age and the need to bring Osimhen more to the fore. Fabian’s new contract appears to have shooed away his many suitors, but as long as his good form continues I expect the vultures to start circling again before too long.

I name the strongest available eleven for the Friulians, which I shouldn’t require but to my mind they’re a stronger opponent than they probably are in reality. Their captain is Italian forward, Kevin Lasagna, one of a select group of footballers named after food (like former Boro striker Massimo Maccarone). He hasn’t scored once this season, a fact that always worries me. Gerard Deulofeu is also here, on loan from Watford, as is Rolando Mandragora, a much-loved midfielder from my FM20 playing days – seriously, I loved him, in fact I affectionately knew him as the Mandragorian, but there’s no love here. He’s on the opposition books. Death to him. A pox on his house. Along with Di Lorenzo, who’s still got up to three weeks of absence, I’ve lost Alex Meret for a week or so, courtesy of a gashed leg sustained. Ospina starts.

This one’s played at half pace, as though everyone is still on holiday in their heads. Luckily for us Udinese aren’t very good. They might line up similarly to Inter, with banks of three centre-backs and midfielders, but the quality isn’t present and when Fabian volleys one in after fourteen minutes there’s the feeling that we can do this without shifting up the gears. Dries Mertens scores from the spot early in the second half when Kalidou Koulibaly is barrelled over during a free kick, before the latter makes it 3-0 with a headed goal, powering over his two markers to drive his shot home. The only real downside is a gashed leg sustained by Politano, which will keep him out for a week.

The transfer window opens. Given how stretched our budgets are my view is that if we get to the end of it with exactly the same players as we have now then I will consider it to have been a successful one.

In the meantime, we have two away games over a few days. The first is against Parma, anchored in the table’s lower half, and showcasing the talents of former Arsenal forward Gervinho. As if demonstrating the old cliché that you can’t win them all, we contrive to draw 0-0, a stilted performance in attack where we pepper Colombi’s goal with shots but never cross the line. Fabian comes closest, a lashed strike from outside the area that crashes off the post, but elsewhere nothing goes right for us. The best opportunity of all might fall to Gervinho. As Parma clear a corner, he’s left on the ball, haring towards our goal with defenders racing to catch up with him. Ospina, alert and advancing from his line to clear the African’s shot, saves our bacon.

Benevento are next. They’re based near to us, so this is a bit like a Neapolitan derby, except their history until very recently was in Italy’s lower reaches and all their rivals are from the country’s hinterland – Avellina, Nocerino, Salernitana, and the like. I like the witch logo on their badge, the fact they’re nicknamed the Sorcerers, the accompanying hope that they won’t conjure anything from this tie. Among their ranks is Roberto Insigne, the younger brother of our own Lorenzo and once upon a time on our books. We set out to attack from the start, to blow them away, make up for the Parma shortfall, and by half-time we’re 3-0 up. Riccardo Orsolini and a Mertens brace have caused the damage. The Sorcerers reply without magic but with plenty of violence, culminating in Bryan Dabo’s second half dismissal for one mucky challenge too many. Victor Osimhen caps off a fine afternoon’s work with a late strike and the emphatic qualities of a 4-0 away win.

Our attention turns now to the Italian Cup, the trophy of which Napoli are the proud custodians. We open with what should be a routine First Round match, against Cittadella, who are one of only two Serie B teams remaining. We’re expected to win with little fuss, though former Blue Gianfranco Zola pops up on the media to warn me about Frank Tsadjout, a Milan forward who’s on loan with the Citta. Di Lorenzo is still about a week away from being able to play in this one. Mario Rui is suspended. I see it as an opportunity to pitch in my Europa League side, the second stringers. Andrea Petagna gets his first start under me, playing as a target man.

It isn’t great. With the visitors happy to spoil and break things up in front of a cavernous, quarter-full stadium we finally score just before half-time, when Petagna’s defence splitter of a pass finds Hirving Lozano piling through on the left, the winger guiding his shot into the top corner. Petagna adds a second of his own after the break to secure the victory. Cittadella rack up one shot on goal, plus the causing of an injury when a clumsy challenge on Grimaldo robs us of his services for two months with a thigh muscle. Due to Mario Rui’s suspension we have to move Hysaj to the left and bring Koulibaly on, which at least makes us even more defensively tight. The Quarter Final produces an infinitely tougher fixture when we will go to the San Siro to take on AC Milan.

From the ridiculous to the sublime. We’re in Milan for the Super Cup Final, in which the cup winners (ourselves) take on serial league victors, Juventus. This time around they have Paulo Dybala back and playing in the striker role, ahead of Cristiano and Chiesa. That’s pretty frightening, however as in our league meeting they’re lumpier than I might have expected. A third minute Koulibaly header that hits the bar defines this one. We have a lot of shots, but Szczesny is at his shot-stopping finest and the woodwork is also on the opposition’s side. That is until about ten minutes before the break, when Riccardo Orsolini collects Zielinski’s assist and fires us into the lead. Juve’s second-half comeback surprisingly amounts to little. Our illustrious rivals seem content to foul and give away free-kicks, one of which nearly gifts us a second when the keeper parries Insigne’s late effort with his fingertips. We emerge with the win, my first trophy as Napoli manager, and a further £1.82 million banked.

Back to the meat and drink of the league, and a journey all the way up the leg of Italy to face Sampdoria. Until late December La Samp were managed by Claudio Ranieri, an appointment that has always struck me as the roll of a dice – will you get the wise old head who wins the Premier League with an unfancied team, or the other Ranieri, who stands on the touchline looking all at sea while his team flounders? Sacked with the side bottom, they’ve since thrown their lot in with Roberto D’Aversa, the man responsible for getting Parma promoted. Their leading light is Fabio Quagliarella, now a sprightly 38 and still entrusted with finding the goals. Unlike that other greybeard Zlatan, the aging Italian looks as though he is at last beginning to dry up, which in part explains their problems.

In any event, a decent (on paper) forward line of Quagliarella, Gabbiadini and Candreva is utterly neutralised by our defence as we walk home with a 2-0 win. Kalidou Koulibaly heads past Audero from a corner in the first half; Matteo Politano secures the points midway through the second. A sound, professional effort, only sullied by Bakayoko’s dismissal for a second yellow. It’s the Frenchman’s second sending off this season, two times too many as far as I am concerned.

One of the lovely contrivances of Football Manager scheduling is that it can frequently put together consecutive games against the same team. We now have two lovely away games against AC Milan, for me perhaps the toughest side we have faced this season. I’m at a loss to know exactly why this is. Maybe we’re just especially evenly matched, or possibly the presence of Zlatan as a Joker in the pack gives them a kind of psychological advantage. Certainly, there’s nothing fun about trying to cope with a 39 year old self-appointed king of the world, someone who in a league career spanning 612 games has scored 390 goals. Only Barcelona stands on his record as a failure, and even at the Camp Nou he achieved a better than one-in-two record. His bad times count as anyone else’s wild successes.

In the league match, the Swedish legend doesn’t score, thanks mainly to a man-marking job, yet in an even contest punctuated by good defending from both sides it’s centre-back Simon Kjaer who has the final word. His headed goal, barrelled in from a Hakan corner, makes the difference and hands me my first defeat of the campaign. We finish with the more impressive xG, but what does that matter when it isn’t accompanied with the points? Can we claim to have lost the game but won the argument?

What a joy it is to play them again in the Italian Cup, probably the more important of the two as we are charged with making the final. Once more I am faced to name a very strong line-up, and as before the confrontation is deadly and very, very even. Both sides produce the same number of shots, Mertens doing a better job of testing Donnarumma than Osimhen ever did in the league tie but with nothing to show for it. Regular time finishes 0-0, then there’s the slow burning torture of extra-time, the pleasure of seeing my players run themselves into the ground. Kjaer is excellent for them at the back, and Tonali and Kessie represent nothing less than a red wall ahead of their defence. Penalties ensue. Zlatan of course slots home, but Kessie and Hakan mess their efforts up and we score all four to claim the tie.

A two-legged affair against Udinese is our reward, because of course what we really need is more football amidst a packed schedule. If we get past them then the final will see us take on either Juve or Inter. There’s still time to squeeze out one more league match. A home fixture with Torino seems like a gentle finish to the month after the terrors of Zlatan, and if the action is laboured here then it’s probably a consequence of fatigue. Victor Osimhen makes up for his anonymity at the San Siro by scoring a peach here, and then we have the wherewithal to hold our Turinese visitors at arm’s length. 1-0 will do. The game is watched by 33,116 supporters, around three-fifths of the stadium’s capacity, and that seems like our average for fixtures where the opposition is not illustrious. Still, it’s a disappointment that this isn’t better, considering where we are in the table. If being top of the tree isn’t enough to drag Neapolitans out to support their local side then I don’t know what is. We need their patronage.

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At the end of it all, we have held on to our ten-point lead, opening the sort of buffer zone that will hopefully be enough ultimately to see us cross the line in first place.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: December 2020

Napoli made close to a £6 million financial loss in November. Wages are of course the big expense. What we pay is not nearly matched by ticket sales and playing in the Europa League doesn’t help very much either. The financial projection has it that we will end the season £19 million in the red overall, which could have an adverse yet logical effect on how much the club offers me for new players. I’m thinking about how we can improve the situation, perhaps starting with a review of the forty-three Blues who are currently out on loan. Some of these are kids. Others – Adam Ounas at Cagliari, Amin Younes who’s currently with Eintracht Frankfurt – have resale value and continue to drain on our resources. Making it into next year’s Champions League will help also.

Lorenzo Insigne is named Player of the Month. The board are happy with me, conferring an A grade for my work, and our winning ways are having a good effect on squad morale. Twenty of our twenty-four man squad are now on my side, including all the team leaders – Mertens, Koulibaly, Insigne – and that makes for a happy camp. All good. The fine times will hopefully make a positive effect during our testing December schedule.

Before the considerable challenge of Inter we’re at home to Viktoria Plzen. There’s no way we can finish anywhere but at the top of our group, so it’s a case of getting through the game and keeping the players fit. Neither participant seems especially interested in the proceedings, though we’re more than good enough to win without trying too hard. Eljif Elmas opens the scoring, and there’s an incisive brace from Victor Osimhen to produce a breeze of a 3-0 win. Diego Demme doesn’t get booked, which shows how much he cares. Most importantly, we emerge from it unscathed.

Onto Internazionale then, which the fixture kindly gives us a day to recover for. It should be a good time to face Antonio Conte’s title challengers. They’re in thirteenth place, indifferent in Serie A, with a squad of disparate talents that refuses to gel. All the same, a forward line starring Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku is no one’s idea of a joke. Koulibaly and Monalos will have to produce their A-game here.

For long passages of play, this one is a complete snoozer. I would be happy with a draw, particularly if that comes with eleven fit bodies emerging from the field, and for much of it that seems to be exactly what I’m going to get. The Nerazurri turn out with a bank of three centre-backs and three central midfielders, and they’re hard to break down, however it’s equally tough for them to push forward to their two strikers, who too often cut distant, remote figures. In the second half, Di Lorenzo is removed with an injury. Scans will later show the right-back has broken his toe, which will keep him out until mid-January. On the plus side, we produce a winner very late in the game, a culmination of some very positive play when Victor Osimhen emerges from a goalmouth melee with a tap-in effort. Inter, defensively minded and unable to change their ways, produce no reaction.

Would I take the victory at the cost of an important first team player? I would not. Di Lorenzo has been excellent so far, and his is a big loss. All I can do is tell him that his place in the first eleven is assured once he’s returned, which seems to have a positive effect. In his place, the obvious choice is Elseid Hysaj, who’s done a good job for us in the Europa League. Andrea Izzo and Nikola Maksimovic can also play here.

One more group game in the Euros to come, in Denmark as we travel to entertain FC Midtjylland. On the way I am asked to bat away rumours that Stanislav Lobotka could be going to play for Guangzhou in China, which I am happy to do. The Slovak is back in the line-up for this one, and I’m pleased also to be able to place Lozano and Politano on the bench. We will need to give Insigne and Orsolini some relief on the left wing.

As tricky as our selection dilemma might be, Napoli have far too much for the Danes who suffer a 3-0 defeat before their home supporters. Lorenzo Insigne crosses for a Riccardo Orsolini volleyed strike before the break, ahead of the diminutive winger adding one of his own, and before the end Nikola Maksimovic scores from a set-piece. I have the luxury of bringing on Politano and Lozano for the entire second half, giving them some invaluable match practice ahead of the home game against Juventus.

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Along with Arsenal, we are the only Europa League entrants to have won all six matches, and we carry an identical record to the Gunners – nineteen goals scored, one conceded. I’m disappointed about the one, obviously. As a reward for achieving first place we are awarded £913,000. Not a bad bonus, though if we were in the Champions League the windfall would have been worth more than eight times that amount.

Ahead of Juventus, the news filters through that Inter have sacked Conte. I can’t help but feel like I’ve made a small contribution to his downfall. Madonna has been put in temporary charge, perhaps because the team like a prayer, but it turns out to be caretaker manager Armando Madonna. The one they really want to take over is Marcelo Bielsa, which has a worrying ring of common sense about it.

The Old Lady might be nine points behind us, but they’re still a formidable opponent. Any team that can wield Cristiano Ronaldo needs to be respected. They’re without Dybala and Ramsey, and that helps, however we won’t be taking our eyes off the other riches available to Andrea Pirlo. Juve have put Federico Bernardeschi up for sale, at the sort of price – £7.75 million – that we can just about to afford. It’s tempting to add another Italian to bolster our attacking ranks. As we plan for them, I catch the draw for the first knockout round of the Europa League. We’ll be playing Lille in February; they sold Osimhen to us in the summer.

Our black-shirted visitors turn up with an all-star eleven. Szczesny’s in goal, ahead of a back three featuring Chiellini, Bonucci and De Ligt. Alex Sandro and Cuadrado operate as wing-backs while Ronaldo and Chiesa play in the wide forward roles. Their central midfield of Rabiot and Arthur lie in support of striker Morata. They’re a jaw-dropping sight, guided by the coolest manager in world football, however they have made a middling start to the campaign and there has to be a reason for that. From the opening kickoff, we pile into them. That Old Lady defence may be illustrious but their two aging centre-backs make for a ponderous beast. Fabian De Bruyne opens for us in the eleventh minute, cutting through the entire Juve team before unleashing a shot into Szczesny’s far corner. Three minutes later and it’s 2-0. Orsolini’s long ball finds Dries Mertens breaking the offside trap. He does the rest. Piotr Zielinski finds the net just after the half-hour mark and Lorenzo Insigne adds a fourth early in the second period. Juve’s substitute striker finds a reply very late in the game, a consolation that spares none of their blushes. They’ve been shown up here, and for now Football Manager seems very easy.

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A combination of squad registration rules and operating on slender means makes any potential move for Bernardeschi a non-starter. A pity, but maybe it just wasn’t to be. In the meantime, I receive the preview of this year’s youth intake. The signs are not promising. Then again, for such a big club Napoli’s junior coaching is considered to be adequate and our youth recruitment is rated average. Unless by sheer dumb luck a prodigy emerges we will never be growing our own future Maradona. Some work here is needed.

In midweek we’re away to Atalanta, who are currently second in the division. The self-titled Goddess might have crashed out of their Champions League group, but they continue to work as the little team that can, the Parma of their era. I do little to change the side that downed Juve. Politano comes in for Orsolini, whose fitness levels have not recovered fully. Ospina and Osimhen start, as we prepare for a difficult visit.

We needn’t have worried. Fabian puts a defence splitting pass through for Victor Osimhen in the eighteenth minute, the striker sliding the ball beyond Gollini to put us ahead. After the break, Lorenzo Insigne nets a hat-trick that pads out our lead even further and allows me to rotate the side based on fitness. 4-0 doesn’t even flatter us. The home team have their moments, the best a Muriel effort that Ospina parries for a corner, but Alejandro Gomez aside they are surprisingly brittle. It isn’t all good news. Late on Tiemoue Bakayoko is sent off for a second yellow, and before the end Alex Grimaldo picks up a pulled knee ligaments injury that will remove him until after the winter break. All the same, we’re now eight points clear.

Next up are Hellas Verona at home. I’ve earmarked this one for some heavy squad rotation as the same players have run themselves into the ground recently. Their big threat is Nikola Kalinic, the Incredible Hulk of a forward who I chiefly recall for doing very little with Blackburn Rovers. A striker who has the height advantage can cause problems for anyone, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on him. I’m also a bit of a fan of English midfielder Ronaldo Vieira, here on loan from Sampdoria and someone who grew into a figure of authority in my FM20 Derby game.

A messy goalmouth melee from Mario Rui’s corner results in Riccardo Orsolini’s opener. The full-back then enjoys the rarity of a goal direct from his beautifully struck free-kick. But in the second half Verona scare us. Gambian sub Embrina Colley scores for them and we spend the last ten minutes spooked, before a gorgeous chipped effort from Lorenzo Insigne deep into injury time calms our nerves.

Naturally the visitors score from their single on-target opportunity, part of which I put down to fatigue. One more to go, away to Crotone, and then we can enjoy a ten-day break that will carry us into the new year. They’re newly promoted to Serie A, in seventeenth, missing their leader and former Neapolitan Luca Cigarini because of injury. There’s a feeling of us going through the motions by this stage. Everyone seems ready for a break and the Crotonians look happy to defend against us, watched by 6,535 politely interested supporters. Despite maintaining pressure throughout, it appears that we will finish 0-0. Defensively we’re okay, but there’s a leggy predictability about our offensive areas, especially Elmas who is being given the stage to shine and instead vanishes from the action. Only a flurry of late substitutions and Lorenzo Insigne pulling off a wonder goal with about ten minutes remaining spares our blushes. Not a majestic way to finish the season’s first half.

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Despite that, Napoli has opened up a ten-point lead in the table. We look good, a class apart really, with Fabian De Bruyne second in the Serie A form table (behind Roma’s Jordan Veretout) and having dropped two points within the league. As if this isn’t enough of a high point, the head coaches of Serie A are polled to vote for their Manager of the Year…

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