Glory Hunter – Napoli: March 2022

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

Twelve fixtures remain in Serie A, three of which will be played in March as the international break cuts into the schedule. As it has been for much of the campaign the title’s destination remains a tightly poised affair. We’re in control of our destiny. Win them all and there’s nothing anyone can do, but Juventus are lurking on our coattails to take advantage of any slip-ups. We’ve conceded four fewer goals than them, however they have scored eight more, and this may end up counting when it comes to the final analysis, even though ultimately I believe we will be sorted on how we have performed against each other. Score a victory at the San Paolo against them and it will matter.

A key week in our destiny opens with an away day at AC Milan. The Rossoneri have been disappointing and sit in tenth place, however they did well against us in 2020/21 and have just appointed a new manager in Luis Enrique. Who knows how he will line them up…? The Old Lady is entertaining Benevento in Turin, which ought to result in a thwacking, but instead they’re forced to a 1-1 stalemate, sluggishly conceding a late equaliser by centre-back Nikolaos Michelis. I’d be happy with a draw at the San Siro.

Victor Osimhen puts us in front after seventeen minutes, a placed shot from twenty-one yards out arising from Tonali’s assist and something special to beat a keeper as good as Donnarumma. It’s the striker’s tenth of the season, a statistic with which I’m a little disappointed. Milan try to haul themselves back into it after this, putting together some lovely passing moves that force us to be at our best to defy them, even though they’re starting Batshuayi and it’s a bit like dealing with the potency of a soft kitten. Early in the second period Enrique gets this and replaces the Belgian with Zlatan. Even in his mid-seventies and with all the pace of an old banger that I remember once owning with affection, he is by far the trickier opponent, using all his wiles to make life hard for my defenders. But we hold. Calhanoglu is suspended for the home side, which makes our lives easier, and late on Matteo Politano nets from a direct free-kick to guarantee the points.

We aren’t at our best in the San Siro. Our set-piece play is particularly disappointing, corner kicks that are ordinarily such a steady source of goals invariably being broken up and sparking opposition counters. The implication here is that Milan are a lot better than their league position. Thankfully, we have completed our games against them now. I suspect they will end the season strongly.

Before entertaining Juve we are completing the Zenit St Petersburg tie, one that is wide open after we played out a 0-0 in Russia. We should get through, indeed we need to as the board expects us to reach the Quarter-Final, however it looks as though we might just mess it up when Martin Merquelanz scores from a counter-attack, classically after breaking up a Napoli corner. I switch our focus to an attacking one and then watch as Piotr Zielinski then puts on a rare show of his outstanding brilliance. The Pole scores two and makes another, Lorenzo Insigne and Victor Osimhen finding the back to the net to seal an emphatic 4-1 win. All good stuff, though Zielinski’s superb display makes me a little depressed that he gets to strut his funky stuff so infrequently.

Beating Zenit adds £8.68 million to the coffers, and now we have to wait another week for the other ties to be played and then to learn who we’ll be facing next. At this stage, any draw involves difficult times, but I would prefer to avoid Bayern or Liverpool, if the gods of football would be so kind.

The scouts are falling over each other to recommend Pedro, a 24 year old Brazilian striker who currently plays for Flamengo. Wanted by Chelsea and Manchester City, and netting twenty from twenty-four appearances in 20/21, he’s considered to be the next big thing in the sort of delirious tones that they once reserved for the likes of Adriano and Pato. Even better is his availability, the possibility that he will cost less than £20 million, and in my mind is our vacancy in attack. Schick has gone. Edouard is here on loan and with a (very, very, very) remote possibility that he will become a permanent addition, so the simply named Pedro Guilherme Abreu dos Santos might just fit the bill. Other prospects, who wouldn’t cost more than a small nation’s GDP, include Gabriel Barbosa (also at FLA), Sebastiano Esposito (Inter unlikely to sell one of their brightest prospects), Karim Benzema (golden oldie who is leaving on a free in the summer) and Lyon’s Moussa Dembele (with doubts that he would add anything that we lack currently).

Bayern see off Juventus in their tie, meaning all that latter now have to play for is the league. Our game against the Old Lady at the weekend is my one hundredth in charge of the Partenopei, a milestone that doesn’t mean very much, but I have an 80% win percentage to maintain and victory at the San Paolo would be priceless. I’m warned to keep tabs on Ronaldo (thanks for that, Dr Obvious), though obviously the high-scoring legend is only the most illustrious within a series of attacking options that are straight out of the top drawer.

We’ve already beaten them in the Coppa Italia, a tie decided at home when the Old Lady didn’t even get going until the match was largely beyond them, and they do the same here. This one is decided by good concentration levels. A couple of our early moves that are broken up and lead to near misses resolve our minds. We keep good possession, remain patient in looking for openings while the players work hard to put themselves into space. Victor Osimhen opens for us. Before the half is out Matteo Politano (clear choice for man of the match) has us two-up, a lead we never look like losing. Juve are strangely toothless. Ronaldo is closely watched by Di Lorenzo. Dybala comes on and does nothing, possibly thinking about his potential move to Manchester United. They seem content to collect bookings and for Cuadrado to get himself removed with an ankle injury. Danilo comes on, which is no one’s idea of a poor substitution, but on the whole Juve are rubbish. This is an important victory. There are ten games left to play, and we have an eight-point lead.

Lazio’s defeat to Chelsea means we are the only Italian side left in the Champions League. Things here suddenly become very serious. We are drawn against Liverpool, which is rough enough, but in the unlikely event we prevail here then Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain awaits in the Semi-Final. The Pool might be third in the Premier League, eight points distant of Man You who are sailing away with the title, but they remain a formidable side to plan for. The dream may very well end here.

We’re travelling to Hellas Verona ahead of the international calendar, which will wrap up our March schedule. Juve demolish Udinese to sustain the pressure. After downing the Old Lady and Milan, this game feels like the softer one, but it’s in exactly these scenarios that we tend to take our eyes off the ball. Concentration, please. You’ve dealt with Ronaldo; Nikola Kalinic should be easy enough in contrast.

Verona are torn apart, deconstructed surgically, but you wouldn’t know it from the scoreline, which is the classic 1-0 to the Napoli. Lorenzo Insigne bags our first-half goal in another impressive outing for the talisman, and Orsolini also comes in for praise, which he deserves after playing well to show Mancini – who’s dropped him from the Italy squad – that’s he’s worth it. The home team go into fouling mode, getting in the way and felling whoever happens to be getting the better of them, and they do enough to keep us from causing any further damage. Garcia gets a second, which is quickly called back for offside, a decision made on inches.

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Not that it really matters. We’ve retained our lead over the Old Lady, and we can now finish no lower than fifth. One more victory – hopefully over SPAL after the internationals are done with – and Champions League football in 2022/23 will be guaranteed.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: February 2022

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

It’s Juventus at home in the cup first, and with an away day at Cittadella to follow at the weekend I choose this as my fixture for which to select the best eleven. Before any of that happens I am asked to register my changes for the rest of the Champions League. It’s not possible to include Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian was brought in as ballast and there simply isn’t the space to add him, however his youth means he can play in Italy without the need for labyrinthine registration rules.

Clearly, the Coppa Italia is a massive deal for us. Win it and I can leave Italy, or at least look for jobs in other countries so that the Glory Hunter challenge can be progressed. I like it in Napoli, despite the club’s resources, which have to be spread rather thinly and occasionally involve making some difficult decisions e.g. the fans aren’t putting the flags out over my decision to let Mertens go, and when I consider what Schick did in his role instead, I have to concede that they have a point. Anyway, it’s a competition that really matters, and at some point we will have to get past Juventus along the way. Will this be the time…?

Despite a clear lack of match fitness Odsonne Edouard is selected to start against Juventus. It’s this that I think contributes to a middling performance – it’s never easy to make your debut in a climate like this, not with Bonucci and De Ligt keeping an eye on you – but he wins an early free-kick, from which Eric Garcia heads beyond Szczesny. A humiliating moment for the Pole, who gets his fingertips to the shot but can only parry it further into his own net. Juve’s front four of Ronaldo, Dybala, Kulusevski and Morata is terrifying, but the former takes a knock thanks to the close attentions of Di Lorenzo and is forced off. This brings on Chiesa, hardly a terrible change for them, yet still they can’t pierce our goal.

Pressing deeper in the second half, we are able to hurt them on the break. We get a corner, which results in a second Garcia headed goal, almost an identical one to his first. Later still, a counter-attack sees Politano pump the ball forward to Gabriel Martinelli, who’s on for Edouard and is dashing through the visitors’ defence. A glorious shot into the top corner makes it 3-0, which is fantastic way to finish the tie.

Going to Turin and prevailing will no doubt be a challenge, however we’ve given ourselves a fine cushion and hopefully we can do it. In the other tie, Lazio put three past Inter and will take an identical scoreline to ourselves over to the Giuseppe Meazza. This result does much to raise morale in the camp. The game was played before a capacity crowd and the supporters are chuffed with what they’ve seen. There’s a renewed spring in our step as we head towards the away game against Cittadella at the weekend.

Juve beat Sampdoria, so once again there’s a requirement on us to produce. Jeremie Boga makes the starting line-up so that I can rest Insigne for the Old Lady rematch. Boga’s fellow Africans, Koulibaly and Osimhen, are returned to us following their Cup of Nations exploits. Neither comes back with an especially good tale. Nigeria were beaten by Togo in the Semi-Final and then lost the subsequent third-place playoff. The Togolese went one step better, winning the Final 2-1 against Kouli’s Senegal team. The beaten finalists have every right to be disappointed. They were pre-tournament favourites, and to lose at the last hurdle is sickening. Neither returnee is fit enough to make the starting line-up against Cittadella but they are named on the bench. It’s good to be able to call upon an almost fully able side once again. Now, only Lozano – out for up to a further three weeks – is unavailable.

Unless we put six past Cittadella I’m going to get pelters from the media here. We actually win 2-0, a fairly straightforward display of power in which I get to see the best and the worst from Jeremie Boga. The move in which he scores starts when he passes to a home defender. Dashing back to pinch possession back, he then gets himself into position to slot home the goal that puts us in front. Very much later on, Kostas Manolas scores from a free-kick, and it’s done. A routine victory; perhaps not the show of dazzling football that everyone hopes to see from us, but a strong outing that maintains the pressure on Juve. One of us will crack eventually, but who?

At Juventus Stadium we are helped by the home team opting not to really try until the second half. The best chances fall to us, and while we fail to score I’m happy enough for things to remain at 0-0. After the break Pochettino’s rocket up their backsides results in a more positive display; still nothing to show for it though, and some stiff defensive work sees us safely over the line. We’ll take on Lazio in the Final, after they produce a 1-1 draw with Internazionale. Though the venue for the May showpiece is a neutral one, by unhappy chance the Olimpico has been pre-selected, meaning we will need to win at Lazio’s home ground.

Still, all that’s a concern for another day. It’s straight back to league commitments for us, and a home draw against Brescia. In the relegation zone and routinely suffering nosebleeds whenever they enter the opposition half, this should be straightforward, and it is when we emerge from a 6-0 shellacking. We’re one-up in the first couple of minutes after a messy goalmouth scramble sees the luckless Jesse Joronen poke the ball over his own goal-line. Victor Osimhen scores from close range soon after that, and before the break Gaetano Castrovilli nets directly from a twenty-five yard free-kick. Odsonne Edouard replaces Osimhen at half-time to build on his match fitness and scores his first two for Napoli, before Fabian caps off the victory with a bullet shot from distance. It’s a great all-round performance, a morale-booster, and even the hard-pressed Partenopei board claim to be happy with this showing.

The good news keeps on coming, as we thrill to Roma’s 2-0 victory over Juventus later that evening. Edin Dzeko’s brace causes the damage. We’ve regained the edge in Serie A. Elsewhere, Uncle Carlo is sacked by Milan after leading them to tenth place. This prompts me to look at the available jobs out there – Fulham and Sevilla, neither of which especially appeals. With any luck, we can clinch the Coppa and then I will be able to look at vacancies more seriously.

In midweek our thoughts turn to Europe, our Champions League tie with Zenit St Petersburg. The evening before, Juve lose again, a 3-1 home reverse against Bayern – are they beginning to crack? We’re in Mother Russia, unsure of what to expect against the team from their capital. They field a pair of former Premier League centre-backs – Dejan Lovren and Davinson Sanchez – and their star man is Sardar Azmoun, an Iranian international striker who has reaped twelve goals from thirteen league appearances. We also need to pay our respects to midfielder Daler Kuzyaev, a tough box to box presence; the scouts rate him very highly, and he seems to be their beating heart, a highly determined presence.

The game is played in near-freezing conditions. Sheets of sleet welcome us into the Saint Petersburg Stadium, and it’s perhaps this – being removed from our preferred climes of Mediterranean loveliness – that blunts our attacking spark. Lots of shots, not many of them on target, our best chances coming from set-piece headers that Manolas and Koulibaly fail to put away. At the other end the anticipated clash between Meret and Azmoun turns out to be over-hyped, in reality not much a factor. It’s 0-0, a scoreline I would normally be upset about but I am able to tell the players that they were unlucky rather than not good enough. We’ll complete the round in early March.

We cough up first place at the weekend, when we’re playing in Genoa. It all seems to be going well early in the second period when Insigne fires in a dramatic cross that Odsonne Edouard powers into the net. Minutes later, Insigne wins a dubious penalty, but his shot is parried into touch by the keeper. This ends up being decisive, when a late equaliser from Prince-Desir Gouano serves as a decisive body blow. Surprisingly, the defender who misses his challenge and allows the scoring opportunity is Koulibaly, who’s about as reliable as we can ever get. I guess anyone can have a day off, even the best of them, but it matters as our efforts to pummel Genoa back down fail to produce a breakthrough and we have to accept a 1-1 result.

Our catch-up game is away to Torino. They’re now in nineteenth place, the implication being that Andrea Belotti made all the difference and, without him, they’re toothless. Last season’s league leading scorer is now with Liverpool and has made a pale handful of appearances, maintaining a decent rate of converting his chances but far from the unstoppable force that he was in Turin. After Genoa I’m keen for us to make amends and we do, putting four unanswered goals past the opposition and generating a further slew of chances. Eljif Elmas, who is hankering after a new contract, scores early. Riccardo Orsolini gets a brace, one of his better ‘running everywhere at once’ showings, and Lorenzo Insigne pads out his personal account with a nice, close range finish. As a consequence of this one, we pay Bologna £3.7 million, a clause in the deal that landed Orsolini into our laps. It’s his fiftieth Napoli appearance, and he’s been splendid.

We’re back in first place and there’s a need to retain it, with Lazio at home completing the month. We’re able to name Lozano on our bench for this one. The Mexican hasn’t taken part since December, when he was in fine fettle for us. I think we will need his versatility and scouring nous before the campaign is done. Lazio are in third place, a long, long way off the pace but gaining points at a fine rate of around two per game and in Luis Alberto showcase an unimpeachable star. Milinkovic-Savic, Correa and Immobile constitute further attacking talent, but hopefully they are less capable at the back.

As it is Simone Inzaghi seems to sense his own side’s deficiencies by fielding an overly defensive formation. Three centre-backs, two wing-backs and a defensive midfielder, with Correa and Immobile set out as remote figures in attack. The channels to their front two aren’t obvious, and we are able to cut them off with some ease while putting two past Strakosha to win the day. A brilliantly worked move finds Riccardo Orsolini’s shot clipping the post before going in, and later Kostas Manolas heads beyond the keeper from an Insigne corner to complete the victory. The Romans are tricky opposition, so to prevail here is really important.

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Luis Enrique is named as the new Milan boss. We’ll take them on next weekend. Juve put five past Torino to maintain the pressure and ensure that we need to get a good result at the San Siro. For the time being, we can be happy with a three-point lead in the division. It’s been hard fought. We will play our main rivals for the trophy in March, a fixture that is looking increasingly decisive in the destination of this season’s title.

Glory Hunter – Napoli: October 2021

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

Another international break looms, but before that we are playing Genoa at home. Vincenzo Torrente’s side are doing better than last season, when they flirted throughout with relegation, but this has all the makings of a sound home win to complete a strong start to our Serie A title defence. As it turns out the match is an exercise in frustration. With many of our regular starters rested and the likes of Boga, Lobotka, Elmas and De Sciglio taking part, we’re fluent enough without ever finding that final cutting edge. Osimhen is notably wasteful, Schick little better. The visitors have their chances also, though never enough to fully trouble Meret. It takes bringing Insigne on late and relying on the little man to pick out Riccardo Orsolini, who at last finds a way past Vodisek, to land us with the points. Not a brilliant showing. Sure, we bag the win, which is what matters in the end, but this one smacks of the wastefulness we exhibited in spades during so-called winnable ties last year.

When we get back we face a straight run of Lazio, Milan and Juventus, so these points could make all the difference. There’s part of me that feels the boys perform better in fixtures where they really have to up their game. Complacency against allegedly lesser teams, the ones they are supposed to win, can find them performing sluggishly, as against Genoa, so maybe more of a challenge will help to stir their passions. Maybe.

No new injuries incurred during the break, but as always the more involved international stars return to us fatigued. I am ever grateful that, having rotated players carefully to meet the various challenges we face, national managers just use them as they want without a care in the world for how they will be feeling at the end of it. I have to make a decision to field my best available eleven for the away game at Lazio. SC Freiburg follows in midweek, and even though the Romans are in lower mid-table they are assessed to be the stiffer challenge.

After finishing third last season, Simone Inzaghi’s Eagles are enduring a tough start to 2021/22. Fifteenth currently, David Carmo and Maximilian Wober have been signed to improve their defensive effort, which hasn’t clicked into place yet. This is, on paper, a good time to play them, but the comeback has to start somewhere. Hopefully it won’t be against us. My nerves are quelled when Lorenzo Insigne puts us ahead early. This is lovely for its approach play. Lazio are trying to compress space, like any good team should, so the way Fabian and Tonali spray passes around to send defenders scuttling after shadows creates the gaps that allow Grimaldo to put the cross in for the Italian’s opener.

We’ve been better than the home side, and it’s with some annoyance that they equalise after around half an hour. Their goal is Lazio’s one significant attack of the half, and results from the breaking up of a Napoli corner, Joao Mario emerging with the ball and picking out Ciro Immobile, who evades the attentions of Manolas before placing his shot beyond Meret. This angers us into action. Another corner for us ends in Kalidou Koulibaly heading in, a quick restoration of our lead. Victor Osimhen scores something of a wonder goal early in the second half to kill off their challenge. By this time I am already replacing players, bringing off Fabian, Zielinski and ultimately man of the match Insigne, and wrapping them up in cotton wool for the tests that lie ahead.

It is a good thing that we win here. Elsewhere, in the Turin Derby Juve open a can of whup-ass on Torino, winning 6-0 with Bentancur in particularly sparkling form. Pochettino is doing far too professional a job here. I miss Pirlo.

SC Freiburg then, the Bundesliga side from Baden-Wurttemberg that term themselves the Breisgau Brazilians. Within a fairly pedestrian group they have been identified as potentially the weakest, and with Milan at the weekend this could be our best opportunity to bench some of our more leading lights. It’s a difficult balancing act, rotating players, hoping that superior fitness will prevail. As we travel into Germany, I pore through the latest round of scouting reports. They keep slipping in the dossier on Manchester City keeper Ederson, a high recommendation who would set us back more than £60 million. This is sheer fantasy football. There’s no way we can afford him, even if the Brazilian is clearly world class. You want me to bankrupt the entire club, huh?

The Germans turn out to be a difficult opponent. They play the Gegenpress and play it well, however like ourselves they are mixing Champions League football with domestic matters and quickly begin to tire. Victor Osimhen has us ahead before the break, slotting home a delicious, chipped assist from Elmas that is viewed by the defenders as a kind of personal insult. As the home team wilts the yellow cards start to fly. Multiple bookings, and when Lienhart sees his second card for flooring Elmas from behind their challenge is over. We’ll take a 1-0 away win any time. Another two and a half million in the bank, and a step closer to qualifying from our group.

Uncle Carlo Ancelotti is back at AC Milan. An unimaginative managerial appointment perhaps, but everyone’s favourite elderly relative has ‘previous’ here and is a steady hand for them. They lost Hernandez in the summer, hence the endless sniffing around Grimaldo, however they can now call on former Neapolitan Jorginho, a £33 million signing, and then returned to Chelsea to snap up uninspiring striker Michy Batshuayi. As a replacement for Zlatan he’s not the most inspiring, but that’s more or less an invite to him for scoring the winner against us. Fifth in Serie A but giving us a rough time of it last season, they aren’t the sort of opposition I look forward to facing.

On a sunny afternoon at the San Paolo we win 3-0, by some distance our best result against the Rossoneri. Milan are difficult and Donnarumma is always too good to be beaten with anything but special striking, but fortunately we have Lorenzo Insigne, who scores a brace. He also sends in the corner kick that is cleared messily by red and black shirted defenders, leaving Riccardo Orsolini in space to volley in our third. The winger is on for Politano, who lasts most of the first half before going off injured – thankfully it isn’t a serious knock, but the boy’s fragile and it’s a concern. In the meantime, I am slightly worried that we are little more than the Lorenzo Insigne Show. We are always better for the presence of our totemic Neapolitan winger; then again, when he puts on displays of this high quality then who’s really complaining?

We now have the unimaginable luxury of a week without football before travelling north to play Juventus. The Old Lady is breathing down our necks this season. Their victory away to Inter in midweek puts them a single point behind, so despite our good form we are in serious danger of losing top spot here. At least we don’t have to plan for Ronaldo, who is out with a hip injury. For our part, Hirving Lozano has sustained a dislocated jaw in a training ground set-to and will be unavailable for a couple of weeks. This is bittersweet news. The Mexican is a quality and unpredictable forward, though that very unpredictability means I am never sure what he’s going to produce. I’m warned that Osimhen’s appearance in this game will activate a transfer clause, wherein we will owe Lille another £2.3 million. I don’t care; it wasn’t me who agreed the madness of his massive fee.

I wonder if the loss of Cristiano actually makes Juve that little bit more dangerous. He was the focal point of their attacking effort, and without him perhaps the likes of Chiesa, Douglas Costa, Morata, Dybala and Kulusevski play better as a unit. For a much-hyped top of the table clash, the match is a damp squib, a forgettable and largely highlight-free 0-0 draw. That’s fine by me. The two groups of players basically cancel each other out. Juve have scored a lot of goals, but we concede hardly any and it’s a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object as we toil to a stalemate.

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More importantly, we have retained first place within a table that has the look of developing into a two-horse race. Look at who else makes up the top six in Serie A. Inter, Roma, Milan and Lazio can’t keep being as bad as they have been, but they are all dropping points with the generosity of a Conservative government slapping the backs of their buddies with Coronavirus contracts, and already they are slipping off the pace.

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: 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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