Glory Hunter – Napoli: January 2022 Part 2

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

The month wraps up with two away league ties before Udinese at home. The first is against Benevento, trapped in nineteenth and with only SPAL keeping them from the absolute bottom. I fend off a transfer bid from Guangzhou for Lobotka, who will need to feature in this one as Tonali is suspended. Playing in their weird yellow stadium, with palm trees invitingly just outside, the first half is far from a classic. When Politano is playing as disinterestedly as he does here, you know this is going to be a motivational challenge. He ends up being subbed off for Riccardo Orsolini, who scores soon after. Then Riccardo Saponara is dismissed for a horrific tackle, and the fragile floodgates quickly open. Lorenzo Insigne scores. Stanislav Lobotka unleashes a howitzer from outside the area that is far too powerful for Montipo to stop, and finally a fine first for Gabriel Martinelli. It finishes 4-0. Given the statistics – all in our favour – it’s what we deserve. Benevento have half their players booked in a showing where they are simply unable to cope.

An infinitely tougher challenge comes in midweek when we’re at Gewiss Stadium to play Atalanta. Sixth in the table and not far from our level, I’d normally be happy by escaping with a draw, however Juve beat Cagliari the day before so we need to win in order to retain first place. It’s the Atalanta manager’s birthday. We help him celebrate by being poor in the first half, coughing up possession and struggling to cope with their counter-attacks. Nevertheless, it’s still goalless at the break, and things seem to be going according to plan when Matteo Politano gives us the lead via a close-range finish. But the home team don’t deserve to be behind, and more or less resent their way back up the field to equalise, a cracker from Remo Freuler that Meret can’t do a thing to stop. After that we try to rouse ourselves back into the action. Normally at this stage we can ease off, swap out tired players in readiness for the next match, but all we can do here is flood forward and conjure a winner. Which we do not get. Neither does our play justify one. Despite finishing the stronger side, 1-1 is a fair final score.

Patrik Schick has been in poor form since being handed the start at striker in Osimhen’s absence. The fans know it. I know it, and I think the player does too. We chat about it and he insists that he can improve. The Nigerian is still contesting the African Cup of Nations, alongside Koulibaly and Boga. As they all play for strong teams each one has made it to the Quarter-Final stage, however the Super Eagles are tied against Cote D’Ivoire so I should have at least one of those players back before too long. As for Koulibaly, we don’t actually miss him so badly. Eric Garcia is playing so well in his absence and improving at such a rate that all appears to be going well at the back. Who knew?

The Czech striker is bad again in our home tie with Udinese. These games are typically low-scoring, needling affairs, but he’s especially anonymous, as though terrified of making a mistake so produces next to nothing instead. He’s off at half-time. Lorenzo Insigne both gets tackled to win a penalty and scores from the spot-kick to give us the lead, and that’s what makes the difference. The visitors are unable to threaten, and we look happy enough at 1-0, though it’s a tired effort generally that makes us look as though we are ready to concede Serie A to Juventus.

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Sure enough, the Old Lady emerges from their away day at Sassuolo with a powerful 3-0 victory. Their range of attacking options is simply terrifying, and it’s something we will have to be ready to cope with as we face them in the Coppa Italia next. At least we’ll have Jeremie Boga back; the Ivory Coast winger is returned to us following their loss to Nigeria. For obvious reasons, I would have preferred Osimhen instead.

Coming to the close of the transfer window, I resolve to do something about the striker situation. Schick hasn’t worked out, this much is clear. He was a gamble and I based part of my attempt to sign him on the basis that he was once very good for me in Football Manager 2018. I can’t be doing with his slack-jawed work on the pitch however, the fact he’s been given the whole of January to strengthen his bond with a Napoli supporter-base that has grave doubts about him and he has gone on to waste it. On Borussia’s transfer list is Odsonne Edouard, a forward I was very interested in signing over the summer. We got as far as personal negotiations before he handed me a list of demands that I point-blank refused to meet. That ended our interest and put me instead into Schick’s orbit. The Celtic player ended up going to Germany, and obviously it hasn’t worked out there. His single appearance for Dortmund offers a clue as to his malaise.

I place a loan offer for him, which will compel me to pay his £66k weekly salary in full, plus £2.9 million per month to his club. There’s an optional £52 million optional future fee in his contract, which I have absolutely no interest in meeting. This can only really happen if Schick makes way, so I offer him out on either loan or a permanent transfer. Lyon slap £15.25 million down for him. I accept, and just like that the disaffected Czech is taken off my hands. Edouard’s in, and Schick is out, the sort of dazzlingly quick deadline day bit of business that suggests Napoli is currently in chaos. We aren’t. It was just the case that we needed to make a fast decision, and it has been made. I think Edouard is the better player of the two, and I look forward to seeing what he can do for us.

Still, the £12 million loss we made on Schick hits me hard. It hasn’t been a good deal on my part. Of the players I brought in over the summer, they’ve all been either pretty good (Boga, Asenjo, Pellegrini) or outstanding (Tonali, Garcia, De Sciglio, Castrovilli). Schick’s the outlier, a costly (for us) acquisition who simply hasn’t worked out as I hoped he would, and that’s on me.

Nothing else happens. The feigned interest in the likes of Fabian, Zielinski and Lobotka becomes nothing more than that and the world’s focus is elsewhere. Donyell Malen’s £65 million move to Inter is the big news of the window. Rodri has left Manchester City for PSG, and to replace him Guardiola has signed Manuel Locatelli for the sort of fee I can only dream of commanding. Max Aarons is now a Chelsea player, and the Blues have also gone for Marcus Edwards and Luis Suarez (the young Colombian forward rather than the toothy Barca legend).

February contains five Serie A fixtures, five opportunities to wrest back our control of the division. The schedule includes Lazio at home, almost certainly the most difficult of the challenges ahead, whilst in the Coppa we have Juventus twice, and the first of our Champions League knockout matches against Zenit. The African Cup of Nations finishes on 5 February when the Final takes place in Stade De Football D’Olembe, Cameroon, after which we should have Osimhen and Koulibaly back to strut their funky stuff in Neapolitan blue.

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: May 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Hunter – Napoli: February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glory Hunter – Napoli: January 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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