The birth of a new Napoli: From Serie A also-rans to Champions League contenders

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Khvicha Kvaratskhelia Napoli Serie A 2022-23 HIC 16:9
This was meant to be a season of transition at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, but Luciano Spalletti's side is making history in Italy and Europe

Right now, the people of Naples are preparing for the biggest party the city has seen since the last time their team won the Italian title, in 1990. Flags are unfurling, bunting is being rolled out and new murals of Diego Maradona are appearing everywhere.

With Napoli 16 points clear at the summit of Serie A with just nine matches remaining, the sense of excitement among the supporters is palatable.

It was all so different at the start of the season, though. The fans were furious back then, outraged at the departures of one key player after another during a summer of serious discontent.

Former captain Lorenzo Insigne, all-time leading goalscorer Dries Mertens, striker Arkadiusz Milik, goalkeeper David Ospina and defender Faouzi Ghoulam had all left on free transfers, Fabian Ruiz had been snapped up by Paris Saint-Germain, and, most depressingly of all, club legend Kalidou Koulibaly had been sold to Chelsea.

Coach Luciano Spalletti was hardly to blame. He openly admitted that he was concerned by the loss of so many leaders, and Koulibaly's exit hit him particularly hard. He adored the Senegal centre-half not only as a player, but a man, and had even threatened to chain himself to the gates of the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona to prevent Koulibaly from leaving.

However, Spalletti wasn't spared from criticism.

  1. 'Can someone shut that guy up, please?!'

    When he took to the stage at a public event during Napoli's pre-season training camp in Dimaro, he was heckled by some supporters and visibly annoyed by one particularly irate fan.

    “Some players have left and they take things with them, players like Ospina, Ghoulam, Koulibaly, Mertens, Insigne, so they take with them many things," Spalletti said.

    “Others... shut up! Others have arrived and bring with them new enthusiasm, more will come and bring with them more enthusiasm. Can someone shut that guy up, please?!

    “This is football. This is football, but what we cannot lose is your support and enthusiasm, because that is irreplaceable and cannot be bought. So, let's stay united and Forza Napoli!"

    The majority of fans answered Spalletti's call, rallying around the team, but there is no denying that their expectations for the coming campaign had been seriously lowered.

    Many feared a top-four finish might be beyond them. A season of transition was anticipated. However, new captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo was adamant that he and his team-mates could prove the doubters wrong.

    “A new Napoli is being born," he declared in an interview with Il Roma. "It's true that we have lost some strong players, but just as many good ones have arrived."

    How right he was...

  2. 'A triumph of scouting'

    'A triumph of scouting'

    Aurelio De Laurentiis received a €2.5 billion (£2.2bn/$2.7bn) offer to sell Napoli last year, and many fans would have been happy to see the back of the outspoken and parsimonious president. Indeed, when his name was mentioned during that pre-season event in Dimaro, it was greeted with boos.

    Now, though, De Laurentiis and sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli are being hailed as masters of the transfer market after what former Italy international Andrea Carnevale labelled "a triumph of scouting" in an interview with GOAL earlier this week.

    Indeed, in years to come, Napoli's recruitment strategy in the summer of 2022 may be held up as the perfect business model for clubs of a similar stature looking to overhaul ageing squads.

    As well as removing nearly all of their highest-earners from the wage bill, the Parenopei spent just €60 million (£53m/$58m) and somehow managed to not just make their squad stronger - but among the best in Europe.

    Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa has been a revelation since arriving from Fulham for just €15m, Giovanni Simeone has proven the perfect understudy for Victor Osimhen, Tottenham loanee Tanguy Ndombole has kickstarted his career, while Kim Min-jae is now being linked with the likes of Manchester United by doing the seemingly impossible: Successfully replacing Koulibaly.

    Indeed, the South Korean, who cost only €18m, would arguably be the signing of the season across Europe's 'Big Five' leagues were it not for Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has become one of the hottest properties in world football in just over six months at Napoli.

    The Georgian was picked up from Dinamo Batumi for just €10m and has been christened 'Kvaradona', having racked up 14 goals and as many assists in 32 games in all competitions.

  3. The rise of Osimhen
    Getty Images

    The rise of Osimhen

    In addition, the winger, who is actually more similar to George Best in terms of his playing style, has formed an excellent and explosive rapport with Osimhen, who is now realising the enormous potential Napoli identified in the Nigerian when they paid Lille an eyebrow-raising €70m (£61m/$76m) for his services three years ago.

    The striker isn't the only player to have upped his game, either.

    By his own admission, the highly talented midfielder Piotr Zielinski had a poor 2021-22 campaign, but the Pole has been pivotal to Napoli's improvement this season.

    The key, though, has been Stanislav Lobotka, whom Spalletti was comparing to Andres Iniesta after the opening-day rout of Verona.

    The spiky Slovakian metronome has gone from strength to strength since then and is utterly integral to the way in which Napoli try to play the game.

  4. 'Systems no longer exist in football'
    Getty Images

    'Systems no longer exist in football'

    Spalletti has always been an intriguing tactician. His striker-less system at Roma inspired Sir Alex Ferguson's construction of a forward line featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

    At Napoli, he ostensibly employs a a 4-3-3 formation but as the man himself says, "Systems no longest exist in football; it’s all about the spaces left by the opposition. You must be quick to spot them and know the right moment to strike, have the courage to start the move, even when pressed."

    This is certainly an intelligent and daring side, brimful of players supremely comfortable in possession, and under pressure. They want the ball all the time and always try to build from the back.

    They are averaging 61.45 per cent possession in Serie A - the highest figure by some distance - and the top five players in terms of successful passes all play for Napoli (Min-jae, Lobotka, Di Lorenzo, Amir Rrahmani and Zambo Anguissa).

    They see slightly less of the ball in the Champions League (55.24%), unsurprisingly given the quality of opposition, but are no less effective given Spalletti also instructs his side to play long and vertically when the opportunity presents itself in order to exploit the pace of Kvaratskhelia and Osimhen in behind high defensive lines such as that of Liverpool, who were routed 4-1 at the Maradona back in September.

    The net result is that Napoli are a nightmare for opponents, as underlined by the fact that no side has scored more goals (25) in this season's Champions League.

    The defensive side of their game shouldn't be overlooked, though - particularly their propensity for winning the ball back inside the final third.

  5. Pep's praise

    Pep's praise

    All things considered, it's easy to understand why Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is such a fan, with the Catalan claiming last month that "Napoli are maybe the best team in Europe" this season.

    That praise provoked an angry response from Spalletti, who accused Guardiola of playing mind games.

    "Are we really putting Napoli in front of Manchester City?," he asked. "If they can spend €900m compared to our €9m, there must be a reason [for Guardiola's comments]: it's an attempt to build us up so that they can knock us down."

    Spalletti's sensitivity was, of course, wholly understandable. As well as having a fine point about the difference in the clubs' spending power, he's also well aware that Napoli have literally never been in this position before.

    This is the first time that the Partenopei have qualified for the last eight of the Champions League. They have nothing like the same level of elite-end European experience as any of their seven remaining rivals.

    Spalletti also knows that Napoli are not without their flaws, as so painfully illustrated in their shocking 4-0 loss at home to AC Milan just over a week ago.

    On a chastening night in Naples, their defence was torn to shreds by Rafael Leao and Brahim Diaz, while the injured Osimhen was conspicuous by his absence in attack.

    Napoli have fared well without the forward this season, but mainly due to super-sub Simeone, who, like Osimhen, will miss Wednesday night's quarter-final first leg against Milan at San Siro.

    Spalletti, then, is right to be preaching caution ahead of a meeting with the seven-time champions of Europe.

  6. 'This Napoli team are totally different'

    'This Napoli team are totally different'

    However, there is simply no getting away from the fact that Napoli are perfectly placed to make more history this season, having been placed on the 'right' side of the Champions League bracket, away from City, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

    After all, it's not just Guardiola talking up Spalletti's side.

    Marco van Basten called their stunning 6-1 annihilation of Ajax in Amsterdam in October a "massacre", Ruud Krol says they're the best footballing side in the world, while Ruud Gullit tipped them to win the Champions League even before they were given a very favourable draw.

    "They play a style of football that we all like to see; fast, rapid and vertical," the former AC Milan forward told the Gazzetta dello Sport.

    "The English clubs are strong, the same for Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid are capable of crazy feats, but this Napoli team are totally different."

    There truly is something special about Spalletti's side. They may not end up winning both Serie A and the Champions League, but the mere fact that they're in this position, playing this beautiful brand of football, is testament to the extraordinary work done by everyone connected with the club over these past nine months.

    A new Napoli was indeed born last summer and it is now the source of pride and joy of an entire city.