Glory Hunter – Napoli: April 2021 (Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Hunter – Napoli: April 2021 (Part One)

With the season drawing to a close I am beginning to get a very good fix on the things I want to change over the summer. SSC Napoli have now gone into the red overall. We will have done very well if the bank balance is kept to less than ten million overdrawn by the time we reach the end, and this will certainly have an impact on what monies I am offered for transfers; neither can I expect to see any significant increase in my wage budget given that it’s so bloated from the start. I fully expect to have to work within existing limits, and to a large extent I think this is completely fair.

So it’s a case of needing to sell in order to buy. We have a number of players who are over twenty-one and currently out on loan, and I will need to make decisions about them, though most likely they are elsewhere for a reason i.e. not good enough. Of the current first team, I highlight the following areas:

  • Goalkeepers – David Ospina will enter his final year contractually in 2021/22, and I am tempted to cash in now. Alex Meret has been mithering for a new deal, which he should definitely get, and while I currently ask Koulibaly to bully him back down whenever he raises the matter, the plan is to give him a pay increase and upscale his status to regular starter, with Ospina being sold off.
  • Central Defence – Manos and Koulibaly are great, Izzo’s okay and homegrown, but elsewhere we are weak. Maksimovic is the fourth man, to be used at the direst end of need, however there’s a flexibility to him as he can also operate at right-back when required. Another good centre-back is needed. There are various targets, led by Eric Garcia who is winding down his contract at Man City and can be signed on a free.
  • Defensive Midfield – I’m not very impressed with Demme overall and Bakayoko is better but here on loan. The likely outcome is that I will need to bring someone in over the summer. Sandro Tonali would be ideal, however I dare say I’m not the only person saying that and there are alternative targets. A position to watch.
  • Central Midfield – not a priority area, yet good Italian midfielders like Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, and Lorenzo Pellegrini at Roma are tantalisingly cheap, according to my scouts, and I am tempted to look further into acquiring one of these, probably at the expense of Elmas, who has far from blown my mind this season.
  • Strikers – the time is nearly here to replace Mertens with Osimhen as my regular starter. That said, old Dries still has something to contribute, even in his advancing years and entering probably his last season as a Neapolitan. The big plus with Mertens is that he can also play on the wings, so he’s useful to keep around. That does leave space for a plucky youngster to be recruited. Two Inter forwards who are trying to break through look like possibilities – Sebastiano Esposito would be perfect but possibly not for sale; Eddie Salcedo is the other, however not as good nor as reliable. After defensive midfield this is a priority for me; I don’t think we have threatened enough in attack and this needs to improve.

The situation entering the season’s penultimate month boils down to this. Napoli are on 74 points with twenty-eight played. Ten games to go, a possible thirty points still in play. Juventus are our closest challengers, in third place but with a match in hand over Atalanta. If they win each and every remaining fixture, including one against us, then they can finish on 87. The target is therefore 88. Five wins will do it, and as it happens there are just as many league games to play in April, though these include Inter and Atalanta at home and Juve away.

The title feels as though it’s within touching distance. Our form might be based on increasingly edgy performances, too often squeezing out results rather than owning the opposition, doing what we need to do instead of wowing the supporters. The board are disappointed that our football hasn’t been entertaining. They’ve got a point, however I feel this will come over time and with flashier players arriving. If I can deliver Serie A – Napoli’s first since 1990, and our third overall – then I believe most of their bugbears and doubts will fade away.

Inter Milan come to the San Paolo looking for an improvement in their fortunes. Ernesto Valverde is now the man in charge. He’s done what no one has achieved since Arsene Wenger and coaxed the good stuff out of Alexis Sanchez, who’s considered to be the one we have to watch. Lautaro Martinez starts alongside him, making for a premium front line hailing from South America, and they can also call on Perisic and a veteran, imperious midfield pairing of Vidal and Nainggolan. Stefano Sensi is out with a damaged kneecap, which for me is something of a blessing. Inter are ninth. They have been disappointing, but there’s a feeling that with Valverde they are turning a corner.

The stage is set for who can come out on top between a rampaging Inter attack and our tight defence. Can we grab a goal while keeping Martinez and his buddies at bay? The answer is yes. In the seventeenth minute, a Fabian cross to Piotr Zielinski, who’s twenty-five yards from goal, results in a long shot that defies both the away defence and keeper Handanovic to give us the lead. Early in the second half, while we deal with the visitors’ attacks a foray into the opposition half finds Lozano crossing in from the left. Matteo Politano is very narrowly onside, capable of producing an accurate finish from a tight angle and close marking, and it’s this level of scoring that is required to get the better of a top goalie.

Inter fail to find any kind of response. Martinez has their best effort, a point-blank shot against which Meret makes himself big and tips it wide. Phew. Juve can only draw away to Udinese, and considering we have the Old Lady next those two points gained may turn out to be crucial. In the meantime, we’ve had our youth intake. It’s rubbish. Here are the best of the bunch, and an uninspiring lot they are, sort of a Garnet Generation.

Kostas Manolas goes down with food poisoning. He may be back in time for the home leg of our Europa League Quarter Final, in which we are facing one of his old teams, the Greek comers Olympiakos. They progressed from a group that contained Feyenoord and Slavia Prague before overcoming Real San Sebastian and Viktoria Plzen to make it to this stage. Theirs is a small squad, anchored by Rafinha, the aging Brazilian full-back who has a lengthy spell with Bayern Munich in his list of previous. Now 35, the scouts don’t rate him highly, but I look at his levels of determination and would love to sprinkle some of that gold dust over my players. Elsewhere, it’s a mixture of journeymen and loanees. The absence of Greeks in their side is a surprise. Bruma, Adrian and Ruben Vinagre (borrowed from Wolves) bolster the ranks.

We entertain the Greeks on Thursday, with Juve to follow two days later, so there’s little choice but to make sweeping changes to our line-up for this one. Only Koulibaly and Grimaldo (because Mario Rui has a tight groin) are retained from the Inter win. Otherwise it’s a reshaped eleven. But that’s fine, because there’s a clear difference in quality between us and them. Any worries I have that Olympiakos might turn out to be one of those apparently lesser sides that carry secret timebomb of teamwork and dedication evaporate when Victor Osimhen scores two first half goals. After the break, they helpfully clatter Insigne in the box so that the Nigerian can get his hat-trick.