If you watched Napoli thrash high-flying Sampdoria on Sunday night you were probably left wondering why this team have been so far off the Serie A pace this season. Rafael Benitez’s men are a full 17 points behind leaders Juventus. Then again, no one can match the pace set by the Old Lady this season.
The win was a good one in what was a big game. Italy has three Champions League spots – Napoli are in fourth and Samp in fifth. But after their win, Napoli are now only two points behind Roma in third and three behind Lazio in second. So the Neapolitans are very much on the charge.
They have also been mightily impressive in the Europa League over the last few games. They reached the semi-final after disposing of Bundesliga ‘best of the rest’ Wolfsburg, beating the Germans 4-1 in Wolfsburg. They now face Ukrainian minnows Dnipro and have a wonderful chance of reaching the final. The last time Napoli reached a European final was in the same competition – the old UEFA Cup – in 1989, led by an all-conquering Diego Maradona.
This time they have a great chance of finishing the season strongly, winning a cup and reaching the Champions League.
But it didn’t start out that way.
The Napoli board refused to invest in the squad in the summer until they reached the Champions League and got their hands on the riches the European top table brings. Benitez was told that if he wanted to spend money, he’d have to earn it by winning the Champions League play-off against Bilbao.
It makes sense that the board would want to guarantee themselves money before spending it, but sometimes you need to speculate to accumulate.
Napoli lost the game, couldn’t strengthen their side much and declined a bit in the league. The poor start has cost them a shot at the title for sure, and may still cost them another shot at the Champions League next term.
On the back of these failings, pressure has been mounting on Benitez all season. Rumours persist that Sampdoria’s Sinisa Mihajlovic will replace the Spaniard at the end of the season, and that Benitez will move elsewhere.
It’s a distinct possibility; there are plenty of Premier League managers in fear for their jobs. In fact, presumably Premier League managers live in constant fear for their jobs. But some more so than others just at the moment.
Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers are two managers who are under real pressure just at the moment. Pellegrini for City’s collapse over the past couple of months, and Rodgers because Liverpool have all but failed to bring Champions League football back to Anfield for next season.
It would be harsh to sack either manager. Rodgers has had to put up with a lot this season, and his side were on wonderful form from mid December right up until they were beaten by Arsenal and Manchester United. Pellegrini’s men are still second in the league and after a league and League Cup double last season, he might just be allowed a poor one this season.
But there are two modern football coaches lurking just below the surface, waiting for the scent of blood to pounce. Rafael Benitez and Jurgen Klopp are both renaissance men, all tactically astute and beardy.
And both men have taken clubs to Champions League finals. Indeed, Benitez’s European record is stellar; he has won the Champions League with Liverpool and finished runners-up two seasons later. He won the Uefa Cup with Valencia and has also won it with Chelsea. To do it again this season with Napoli would surely put his name up there with the likes of Carlo Ancelotti as one of the best managers in European cup football.
And that would be the draw for any big English team hoping to tempt him back to Blighty.
Liverpool and City could both be doing with a manager who can bring them along in Europe. It would be strange to see Rafa the gaffer back in the Liverpool hotseat, but stranger things have happened. For him to take over at City seems a little less outlandish, though, and if they’re thinking of replacing Pellegrini, another tactician who knows the ins and outs of the Champions League as well as anyone would be a good shout. Europe is the Holy Grail the City ownership have been searching for.
Napoli are on form, and if Benitez does leave at the end of the season, another European trophy and Champions League qualification with Napoli would really see his stock rise. English clubs might be taking note and could come calling soon.