Glory Hunter – Barcelona: October 2022

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

Another packed month, which takes in an international break once we have completed the home match against Sevilla. Real, Ajax and PSG all lie in wait this month, with a tightly contested scenario in La Liga and the Champions League group both to be resolved. At the end of October the league calendar takes a break until January, while we all sit back to enjoy the winter World Cup and keeping our fingers crossed that the Barca players taking part in it don’t get too battered and bruised in the desert.

Sevilla first. They’re in lower mid-table, for once not playing in their traditional personal fiefdom of the Europa League and now managed by former Man City and Italy boss, Roberto Mancini. He can call on Ivan Rakitic, who once dominated our midfield before old age took over and he was doled out to play his waning years for Los Nervionenses. As though specifically aiming to put some of our sluggish performances behind us, we end up winning 4-0 in this one. I field Pedri on the left wing, basically because I want to promote one of the more promising Barca kids, and he responds with two goals to crown a shining performance. Sevilla fail to deal with his superb dribbling, and while trying to keep eyes on Messi, Kane, Moriba and de Jong they similarly prove unable to cope when Florentino Luis launches a terrific long shot to beat the keeper, and they then fell Lionel Messi in the area to allow Little God to cap off a good day’s work from the penalty spot.

A brilliant performance, and a good feeling to take into the latest Interlull. Hector Bellerin has played his way back into the Spanish national team. Pedri isn’t selected, and I see it as a personal mission to play him as often as I can to stake his claim. If the youngster’s presence comes at the expense of Coutinho then that’s fine by me. The choice on the left is between two Barca prodigies and the Brazilian, and I know who I want to move forward with.

Spain beats Serbia 3-0 with a side containing five Barca stars – Torres, Bellerin, Sergi, Busquets and Fati – and the board announce that a small stadium expansion is now complete. We can now play host to 104,000 supporters, which will hopefully transform the Camp Nou into an even louder cauldron of noise. The difference between this place and Napoli’s San Paolo is pronounced. It’s never far from full, a massive degree of Catalan loyalty that we are all keen to repay on the pitch.

Not that we get to do so on the other side of the international schedule. We have to complete the single hardest fixture of the calendar, an away day at the Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid. Barca’s record against their bitter rivals over the past two seasons isn’t good. We haven’t won a single game, and while that didn’t matter in 2020/21, last season it was part of an effort that handed the title to the team that plays in white. It’s on me to try and change things, to reclaim the Classico.

Real are now managed by Maurizio Sarri, who guided them to La Liga glory in the summer. Some of their stars have left in that time (Odegaard, Valverde, Locatelli) and of course the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo sits atop everything, but they’ve been busy. Bastoni, Fekir, Wijndal, Brenner and Dalot are all in. They have started the campaign in slightly slower fashion than we have, but they aren’t far behind and my temptation is the measure our progress against theirs. Essentially, stay ahead of them and we won’t be going far wrong.

The first half of the Classico at the Bernabeu looks like living up to its billing. Real take a quick 2-0 lead via Casemiro and Mariano, but we begin to claw our way back and by the break Antoine Griezmann and Milan Skriniar have levelled the game. It’s so finely poised, so tense that I need to walk away from it for a little while before accepting the responsibility of seeing it out. Very early in the second half, we concede a free-kick about thirty yards from our goal, which gives Nabil Fekir the licence to fire in a spectacular effort. Driven to find yet another equaliser, we instead end up conceding a fourth, Vinicius Junior netting from a breezy counter-attack. We lose 4-2.

It’s a disappointing result to take, especially as we have dominated the game and ultimately go down to Real’s superior cutting edge. We are especially bad at the back, a top class defence looking quite amateurish, but the villain for us is Coutinho, who is kept in the pocket of Dalot. Fati does slightly better when he comes on, but my thoughts regarding the Brazilian are beginning to turn to considerations over his exit. Two Barca products – Fati and Pedri – just look more lively for us, so do we really need Philippe, even though the prospect of parting ourselves from his massive value and enormous contract will make him a difficult sell? Is he just an albatross for us? On the upside, Lionel Messi plays really well, yet this just makes me angrier. We are supposed to be moving away from relying on a club legend to make our waves, but he looks like one of the rare players who actually cares about trying to win this match.

At least we have now played all three of our main contenders – the two Madrid clubs and Valencia – away from home in the league now. When next we meet in La Liga it will be at the Camp Nou, presumably a different story for us. A run of matches played in Catalonia will complete our October. We start with a Champions League clash against Ajax, for whom Jasper Cillessen has become an ogre of a keeper, expanding to twice his size whenever we bear down on his goal. We should have the capacity to pummel them and we do, but the result is a vexing 1-0, Lionel Messi netting from a beautiful passing move in which his close playing relationship with Sergi Roberto is an absolute advantage. I guess it takes something special to beat Cillessen, and this is exactly that.

Eibar next, a game against a Basque side that is rooted to the foot of the table. The fact they have remained stubbornly in La Liga since 2014 is to their considerable credit, however it ought to be a scenario of men against boys, and we end up with a 5-0 victory. Pedri scores a couple of early goals to advance his credentials, before Milan Skriniar heads in from a classic set-piece and Bruno Guimaraes bags his first. Edouard Exposito gets himself sent off after that for collecting two yellow cards in quick succession. This wraps up a miserable afternoon for the midfielder, who listens from the changing room as Jordi Alba drives in a spectacular fifth for us. This is what I want to see, a complete performance. Bruno claims the match ball, but I am pleased with the work of Ousmane Dembele, on to give Messi the day off and providing two assists as part of an enterprising outing.

We can guarantee qualification from our Champions League group if we win our next match, however Paris Saint-Germain are the slight obstacle standing in our way. They beat us 1-0 in France and we do exactly the same to them here. Harrington Kane does the honours, a depressingly rare instance of him finding the net (I expected a free-scoring escapade from Day One, quite honestly). Skriniar is impressive in this one. His work leads Haaland to have an evening of absolute anonymity, which is all I could ever ask of him. PSG supply the fouls, earning three bookings as their inability to make an impression here descends into entitled thuggery.

Sporting Gijon (pronounced, I believe, Hee-Hon) are a higher standard of opposition than Eibar, but once again I’m expecting a win here, and I select an attacking side to get just that. Pedri puts in another enterprising job of work, taking less than a minute before putting us a goal ahead. Before the first twenty minutes are up, Torres claims that he’s pushed in the area during a corner kick and we get a penalty, which Harrington Kane duly dispatches. The star man here is Ousmane Dembele. Later in the game, he sets off on a solo run from deep in our half, which only ends when he’s placed his shot beyond the keeper to complete an outing of some potency. For the visitors there’s only pain. They don’t get so much as a shot on our goal, and are effectively hamstrung when attacking midfielder Pelayo Morilla tears his midway through the first half. I get some pelters for the level of squad rotation I do, but here’s why. Field the same players week in, week out, and watch the injury count ratchet up.

It’s a positive end to the first portion of our season, with domestic matters now taking a breather as the World Cup takes over. All we have left is to complete our Champions League group. In the meantime, we are in a three-way tie at the top of the league. Valencia are in the driving seat thanks to their match in hand, and in truth they have been very dominant recently, but we are up there, despite the Classico reverse, and that’s what matters. The five-point buffer between ourselves and Real gives me heart, though I’ll confess it’s a gap that can be worn down with a couple of poor results.

Ansu Fati agrees a fat(i) new contract, which puts the 20 year old within the upper bracket of Barca earners and ends the speculation that he might leave the club. Over my dead body, though you can have Coutinho if you’re desperate.

Glory Hunter – Barcelona: September 2022

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

Heading towards the closure of the transfer window, the temptation is to change nothing. We’ve got a good squad, and aside from a residual wish to reduce the average age there’s not very much that needs doing right now. But when I have transfer money it burns a hole in my pocket. There’s more than £60 million remaining. Players are out there. Players who need signing…

Things kick off when Valencia make an offer for Ismael Bennacer. I’ve made no secret of my desire to have the Algerian international under my wing, and the prospect of him going to a hated rival does not please me. So I match their bid, and in the meantime offer Gio Wijnaldum out to anyone who fancies a 31 year old Dutchman with occasional grievances over his earnings. There’s one place that will always take aging pros and that’s Juventus. They produce a £25 million punt, a bit less than the player’s actual value but good enough. Bennacer costs £42.5 million. He’s 24, slightly under-used by AC Milan but with the potential to go far.

I then read that Arsenal are after Bruno Guimaraes, the 24 year old Brazilian playmaker who plies his trade with Lyon. I envisage a dizzying scenario whereby he comes in and Miralem Pjanic leaves. The latter’s all right enough, but he’s 32 and it still strikes me as bizarre that someone in Barca’s past effectively traded Arthur in for him. Bruno will redress that balance. The sticking point is that Lyon won’t allow him to leave until a replacement has been signed, and the sweaty minutes pass as we wait for them to move their backsides, the player forced to wait as the £48.5 million agreed for his sale sits in the outbox. In the end, they sign not one but two midfielders, paying less for both than Bruno’s transfer fee for Djibril Sow, and former Napoli hero Stanislav Lobotka. The deal goes through, and Pjanic leaves for Lazio. He goes for around half his value, £13.75 million, and we need to pay a significant part of his spends until summer 2024 because some bright spark once thought he was worth £275,000 per week.

So what could have been a quiet window becomes anything but. I’m pleased with my signings and ambivalent about the players I’ve lost, which is just how it should be. Elsewhere, Man City pay a staggering £152 million for Real’s Federico Valverde, a ‘we’ve really seen you coming’ of a transfer if ever there was one. Joao Felix is no longer a Spanish league player, going to Liverpool for £97 million. Any departee that makes our rivals a little bit weaker is just fine with me. Martin Odegaard is another significant loss to this nation. He’s now a Manchester United midfielder, as the Premier League flexes its financial muscles.

We are scouting Ajax players hard. I would take all three of Kenneth TaylorNaci Unuvar and Ryan Gravenberch. They’re young, have amazing potential levels, and certainly in Naci’s case could come in as the long-term replacement for Coutinho. The former Liverpool attacker has started pretty well, however, as though begging me not to let him go.

We have been named 7-2 favourites to win the Champions League, an ominous tag if ever there was one. Man City, Real and group rivals PSG are all up there with us, and you can throw in Liverpool, Man United and Bayern while you’re at it. We’ll find out how close we are to earning that tag soon enough, with three group ties taking place across September.

While the international break continues, I seal another deal, a £3.7 million splurge for Malaga full-back Juan Francisco Herrera. At sweet 16, this is very much one for the future, the 4.5 potential star rating making my mind up for me. Help, I’m out of control! I can’t stop spending the club’s money. We had better end up being good because this won’t end well otherwise.

We reach the other side of the Interlull with just one significant injury. Milan Skriniar has picked up a back strain after trying to impress the youngsters during weight training. That’s three weeks without arguably our best defender and with PSG on the horizon. Nice one. Before travelling to France, however, we’re in Madrid to take on Getafe CF. They’ve started the season well and sit in fifth place. Midfielder Nemanja Maksimovic is their one to watch, albeit studded with unhappiness as he’s chasing a new contract while sadly playing for the sort of team that won’t shower him with his ‘deserved’ riches.

Getafe’s success lies in stiff defending and a tendency towards violence. I have had to make to substitutions before half-time, losing de Jong (not serious) and Fati, who’s out for a few days with a twisted knee. Before his departure the winger supplies a delicious cross for Antoine Griezmann’s close range finish. That’s all the scoring we do, and there’s certainly little possibility that the home team will trouble us.

Paris Saint-Germain clearly don’t have enough of a goals threat with Kylian Mbappe because they’ve signed Erling Haaland also. Thomas Tuchel can command considerable riches – Neymar, Icardi, Mahrez, and new signing Koopmeiners, all straining to stop us from leaving our half and causing problems for Aaron Ramsdale in their goal. This is going to be the toughest test of our Champs League run. I’d take a draw. Victory will make me believe that we might just live up to the pundits’ predictions.

It goes badly. On too many occasions the French giants simply threaten to overwhelm us. Pau’s personal battle with Haaland works out well enough. Sergi’s confrontation against Neymar ends with the latter going off injured, a three-month layoff with a hip problem. But we struggle to cope with their fluency, too frequently they break up our attacks and counter us quickly and fluidly, and when Luis Diaz scores from range, something special to beat Ter-Stegen, it’s all we deserve. Bennacer comes away from his debut with credit. Florentino Luis plays with the constancy of a whirling dervish; otherwise it’s worrying.

Back in La Liga at the weekend, and this time we’re off to Alaves in the Basque Country. I remember this lot best from when they contested the UEFA Cup Final against Liverpool some twenty years ago, and took them to a mammoth 4-4 draw before an own-goal in extra time finally killed off their effort. Beyond that, they’re a side that oscillates between the top two divisions. They’ve been back in the first division since gaining promotion in 2016, after a decade of second – and occasionally third – tier football. They aren’t at all bad, albeit there’s a sense of making up the numbers about them and we ought to take them to task at the Mendizorroza. Instead, the afternoon is largely an exercise in frustration. Defensively we’re good. Torres, Pique and Bellerin all come away with credit, neutralising the home side’s attacks. But in midfield Moriba and Guimaraes struggle to make an impact, and Dembele on the right wing shows scant evidence that he’s ready to take over from the Little God. We are good enough to win, however. One moment of magic has Jordi Alba supplying a killer pass that Ansu Fati smashes past Pacheco.

The rest is vexing, and there’s some gratitude from these quarters that the Barca board has placed so few conditions on me. All they demand is that I work within the wage budget (we’re below the threshold by £122,000) and develop players using the youth system, a condition within which I am in accord. No hopes here for the sort of sexy football required by Napoli, which is good as it generally takes me a year to whip the team into the sort of shape that’s made for entertainment. I guess they are happy as long as we win things. Nothing else matters to them.

We’re at home next to Borussia Monchengladbach. It’s tempting to dismiss the Germans because they aren’t Bayern, Dortmund or RB Leipzig, but in truth Wolfgang Schneider is leading them perilously close to Bundesliga glory. In consecutive seasons they have finished fifth, fourth, third and second, and we know what’s next in the trendline. Their key player is the ferociously named and excellently bouffant Hannes Wolf, an Austrian international attacking midfielder who normally operates as a shadow striker behind Victor Tsygankov and Marcus Thuram, two players who I had an eye on whilst at Napoli.

There’s an effort here for us to gain some ground after PSG. The side known colloquially as the Prussians – which I’m grateful for, as I don’t want to have to type ‘Monchengladbach’ again… damn – give us some trouble, but Umtiti, Busquets and the evergreen Gerard Pique deal with everything, and the latter even gets on the scoresheet when he heads Messi’s corner kick past Sommer. The visitors are fielding Allan Saint-Maximin, someone I actively coveted before moving to a club that wouldn’t offer so much as a sneeze in his direction, and they’re right to do so as the former Newcastle winger just runs into trouble against a full-back of Bellerin’s quality. In the meantime we add two more from Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi to come away with a creditable 3-0 win. The Champions League attracts capacity crowds as a matter of course, and I’m happy to have given them something to enjoy.

Another tricky tie in the league where we go away to Valencia. I would rate them as just behind ourselves and Real Madrid in terms of ability, and there’s little wonder that this one finishes in stalemate. It’s a good one though. For once Harrington Kane uses this as a stage to show his quality, scoring a brace to stand out as our best player in the game. But chances for us are few. Despite playing positively our attacking spark is largely snuffed out by Camavinga, Demiral, Azpilicueta and their groovy mates, and for each Kane goal they conjure an equaliser, both scored by Maxi Gomez. They deserve the draw, in fairness. We’re lumpy here, struggling to find any kind of fluency, and Messi in particular is kept quiet, their excellent full-back Jose Gaya making him look like a rapidly aging former great.

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All the same, I’m sanguine about drawing in Mestalla. It’s a difficult place to go and get any kind of result. The Bats have had a board takeover and are now one of Spain’s richest clubs, building to join the best this country has to offer, and their performance here leaves me grateful that the fixture is out of the way and we have left more or less unscathed. The result keeps us at the peak of the league, exactly where we want to be, albeit sharing the points haul with Atletico Madrid. The four at the top is how I expect the table to look at the end, with only the identities of the individual teams in that mini-league to be shuffled. As I see it, staying ahead of Real is the key, and we’re going to the Bernabeu next month in what should be another exercise in pure joy.

September isn’t quite over yet. We still have to go to Ajax in the Champions League, a fixture that results in a disappointing 0-0 tie. We do everything right here, achieving 62% of possession and racking up fourteen shots to their one. Messi makes up for his anonymity in Valencia with a really good display here, reaching into his bulging bag of tricks to try and find a way through, ultimately to no avail. Cillessen is excellent in the home side’s goal, and they’re steadfast at the back, anchored by the experience and guile of Daley Blind.

 

We are making heavy weather of a tough group, rather expectedly. PSG are running away with it right now, amassing three straight victories, and I know we are going to have to make up some ground to qualify. But it doesn’t matter who wins Group F. Simply staying in the competition is what counts, and the Frenchies have to come to Barca still, a revenge match that will be played in late October.

Glory Hunter – Welcome to Barcelona: Summer 2022

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

Like that, I’m whisked from adulation in Naples to shrugs and general nonplussed attitudes in Barcelona. My wage jumps to £155,000 per week. With this I can afford a seven-bedroom mansion in Vilanova i la Geltru, built in 1912 and once the summer home of the Bishop of Barcelona. Nice.

The first thing to do is check out the squad. It’s very good, indeed it’s a clear jump from what I’m used to. Whilst at Naples I pondered who to alternate with Victor Osimhen, here I get to choose between Harrington Kane and Antoine Griezmann, a nice headache for any manager to have. Footballing legends like Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong pass me on the corridor. Topping off the lot is of course Lionel Messi, the Little God himself, by now 34 and still spreading his divine presence around the Camp Nou.

It’s tempting to believe that there isn’t a thing I need to do to improve this lot, which of course isn’t true at all. Overall the standard is very high; still, I start spotting gaps, notably at left-back, where they still rely on an aging Jordi Alba. He has something to contribute, but it’s for sure that the abilities have waned over the years. Pique, Busquets and even the Little God are all entering their twilight years as top drawer international superstars. And that, I find, is the job here, nothing less than overseeing the transition from a team that still relies on its former deities. It’ll take some doing. You don’t easily replace these guys.

Barca finished in third place in 2021/22. Real Madrid were champions on 102 points, dropping 14 across the entire season and putting a huge distance between them and us. We actually won the title the year before while gaining fewer points, but the white half of Madrid roused themselves into action this time around, and for good measure added the Europa League along the way. Thanks Maurizio Sarri, replacing Zidane and smoking his way to instant success at the Bernabeu. In the Champions League, Porto saw us off in the first knockout round. A sorry second half to the considerable success we produced in 2020/21. It did for Ronald Koeman, and opened the door to your writer.

It’s late June. I’m trying to recruit a team of new coaches because Koeman left me with three to work with the first team, though soon enough I learn that a promise I rashly made in my job interview was to change nothing in the backroom staff. This holds until late December, meaning the first team runs with a tiny coaching team for now. The only change I can make for now is to promote youth coach Ivan Cuadrado.

The Barca transfer budget is a staggering £160 million. There’s nearly five hundred grand left to spend on wages each week – the overall amount is six million, essentially doubling what I had to blow at Napoli. There’s a very nice number of homegrown players in the first team. Prodigious teenagers grown from within like Ansu Fati, Ilaix Moriba, Pedri and Ilias Akhomach rub shoulders with the giants, players they all look up to. There are more ploughing away at Barcelona B, a young midfielder like Nico who at most clubs would already be a first team regular. It’s a daunting place at which to work. Talent is everywhere. I need to make sense of this.

Barca expects. They want their league title back, and a final placing in next season’s Champions League would be nice as well. The board aren’t bothered about domestic cup competitions, which shows just where their focus is, but of course I am. Glory Hunter cannot progress without claiming the Spanish Cup along the way, though I can see myself staying here for a little while. There’s something dizzying about taming the beast that is FC Barcelona. The resources available are incredible, and the ever-present challenge from the two Madrid clubs is something to work against.

A number of contracts are up in 2023. These include legends like Busquets and Messi, also Umtiti and Junior Firpo. Gerard Pique demands a new deal, and even at 35 I think it’s worth offering him one. His new deal includes wresting the captaincy from Little God, a change I would probably want to affect anyway so this is a nice, underhand way of resolving it. Georginio Wijnaldum is also hankering after improved terms; I tell him to do one and he accepts that! Everyone is offered an extension apart from Firpo, the left-back who I frankly don’t think is good enough to remain here. He’ll be offered out instead.

The Brazilian ends up leaving, going to Lazio for a fee of £10 million. I want to replace him with an up and coming star to steadily take the left-back spot permanently from Alba. My choice is Marc Cucurella, who grew up here before Koeman sold him to Getafe. We sign him for £32 million, which is more than we got for him when he left but money isn’t really an object at the Camp Nou and my sense is that Marc belongs with us.

Centre-back is another area of comparative weakness. There is one really good player – Milan Skriniar, a signing from Inter last summer, and in Pique we have an aging legend, plus Samuel Umtiti. Below them are young guns who I don’t see as being perfectly ready for the grit of first team football. Jean-Clair Todibo is the best, a 22 year old Frenchman who is close but not there yet and could use a season on loan. Ronald Araujo is a decent Uruguayan prospect, also made available on loan but I’m just happy if he stays as ballast. We need a fourth good one. I go for Pau Torres, the 25 year old Spanish international at Villarreal. He’s someone I lusted after at Napoli. He wasn’t affordable then, but he is now. £57 million is the fee for his services.

In defensive midfield, Barca showcase the two Busquets brothers. Sergio is approaching the back-end of an illustrious career. Oriol is wanted by Lazio, who offers £25 million for him. In my view, I’d rather loan him out, but the Romans are prepared to give him first team regularity, which I never would, so that seals his exit. I go for Florentino Luis as the long-term pick. The Benfica man has a minimum fee release clause of £50 million, and at 22 can operate at the top level for a long time. The deal is done, completed easily because people want to play for us.

The other first teamer I sell off is Adnan Januzaj. Barca already have some bloke called Lionel Messi who operates perfectly from the right wing, with Ousmane Dembele an ideal alternative choice, and Pedri and Akhomach serving as our youthful options. Januzaj, now a long way from the rabbit in the headlights bairn he was under David Moyes’s brief, unhappy stint at Manchester United, was brought in by Koeman in 2021 and barely used. He paid £38 million for the Belgian. We recoup two million less than that in moving him on to Juventus.

Pre-season is a string of bulldozer showings. Ajax, Roma, Basaksehir and Leixoes are all dispatched at an aggregate score of 14-1, and then the league calendar looms. We start at the end of July with one of the toughest tests I’ll face – an away day at Atletico Madrid – before the calendar begins in earnest. You’ll recall that this is the season that will take two months off in the middle for the winter World Cup. Either side of that is a schedule that runs to the very end of May.

Unless something dramatic happens in the month between now and the end of the transfer window, like for instance I make the bizarre decision to rescue Cristiano Ronaldo from his hell in free agency (Juve released him), the squad will not change much from where it stands presently. It looks like this – homegrown (trained in Spain) players are shaded green; homegrown (trained at club) in blue:

Glory Hunter – Napoli: November 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Hunter – Napoli: August/September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Hunter – Napoli: Pre-Season 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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