Why Napoli are walking a tightrope between success and failure

Chelsea returned from Naples five weeks ago with their tail between their legs following a 3-1 loss that led the British press to hail Walter Mazzarri’s side as the reincarnation of the famous Scudetto winners of the late 80’s. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that they couldn’t defend and relied almost exclusively on the ability of the ‘Three Tenors‘ and the comic last days of Andre Villas-Boas’ Chelsea reign.

Fast-forward three weeks and the hyperbole thrown their way was soon extinguished as Napoli contrived to implode at Stamford Bridge, squandering numerous early chances before succumbing to an aerial bombardment that they just could not cope with.

Their European exit left mixed emotions – Napoli were not expected to go as far as they did, particularly after they were drawn in the toughest group, and yet, Chelsea were floundering. You could argue that the unfortunate timing of Villas-Boas’ dismissal conspired against Napoli, but then it would be more sensible to point to their rancid defensive display as the prime reason for their exit.

The heavy 3-0 loss to Juventus on Sunday added weight to the suggestion that Napoli are stumbling towards the finish line. Since defeat at Stamford Bridge, they have gained just two points from nine and head to Rome for a massive fixture against third-place Lazio on Saturday evening. Edy Reja’s side are three points in front of Napoli and crucially occupy the final Champions League qualifying spot in a year where fourth only sends you to the Europa League.

Although owner Aurelio De Laurentiis is not shy of a few Euros, he is well aware of the esteem Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani are held across Europe and it’s entirely possible they could be flogged to the highest bidder this summer – particularly if the club miss out on Champions League football.

Hamsik is a curious case as his value is almost entirely measured on his goal threat. Away from the box it remains difficult to assess his best attributes but for as long as he scores goals he will continue to command a big fee.

Cavani has frequently professed his love for his current surroundings and has had an outstanding two years in Naples but there is a lingering feeling that these could well be his best years. He didn’t exactly show prolific form for Palermo, scoring 37 goals in 117 appearances and has just 11 in 37 for Uruguay. Although his Napoli record currently stands at 61 in 86 appearances, cashing in on the Uruguayan may be more tempting than it should be for De Laurentiis.

Completing the trio, Lavezzi is experiencing an excellent fifth year at the San Paolo, sitting just one goal shy of his best return of 11 goals. But as rumours of an impending bid from the scandalously wealthy backers at Anzhi Makhachkala grow, the financial welfare of a club with a chequered history of account mismanagement may trump sentiment.

The potential departures undoubtedly hang on European football. The Europa League is unlikely to push the three forwards away but that situation would certainly entice bids from Europe’s richest clubs. Saturday’s fixture is of paramount importance as every passing week dictates the number of vultures circling above Napoli’s three elite players.

Bela Guttmann’s “the third year is fatal” theory has been discussed extensively in recent times and seems worthy of a mention. As Pep Guardiola reluctantly passes the La Liga baton to Jose Mourinho, the belief is that Real Madrid’s impending domestic usurpation will confirm the final days of Catalan dominance. Over in Italy, could the same be said of Napoli?

Mazzarri is in his third year at the San Paolo and recently said: “Last year we did exceptional things, but it is not always possible to repeat seasons like that one.” Scouting around Europe, it is clear to see what is afflicting his side. The debut Champions League campaign has taken it’s toll on both management and players. In a similar way to Tottenham’s fifth placed finish in 2010/11 and the relegation-threatened predicament Villarreal currently find themselves in, the first meal at Europe’s top table is always the toughest to keep down.

If, (and it’s a big ‘if’) Mazzarri leads his side back to Champions League football, he will have placed Napoli on the verge of a period of stable success. The UEFA mega-bucks thrown at De Laurentiis will not only allow Mazzarri to continue to mould his side into a bigger beast, it will keep the wolves at bay.

There can be no denying that Napoli have dined out on their flimsy squad and with the addition of European games and a run to the Coppa Italia final we are noticing the effects. In Serie A, 13 players have featured in 80% or more of the club’s fixtures. In a squad of 28 players, seven haven’t started a game. That leaves eight players who have made the odd start and handfuls of sub appearances. Continuity has pushed the squad to the same heights in Serie A as last year, but can it last?

Against Juventus, all three forwards were employed to work hard defensively and as such created little in the attacking third. Right-sided Christian Maggio – one of the team’s most vital components – had to be substituted (as he was at Stamford Bridge) due to injury, while Juan Zuniga, the other wing-back was sent-off for elbowing Giorgio Chiellini and will miss two games. There is a fear that Salvatore Aronica will have to play wide against Lazio – a frightening prospect for any Neapolitan to endure.

Those with a glass half-full disposition will chuckle at Lazio’s loss to lowly Parma and see little to worry about. But others may cast a southerly glance to Roma and a rejuvenated Inter Milan and grimace at the prospect of totally falling out of the European places.

Cavani once said: “Playing in this team is like being a member of a well-tuned orchestra.” 55 goals between the ‘Three Tenors’ in 2010/11 confirmed his assertion. However, recent weeks have shown that many of the instruments around the attacking trident are showing signs of rust. It is the time of year across Europe that the big players – the most coveted footballers – earn their stripes.

Ironically, should Hamsik, Lavezzi and Cavani propel Napoli into another Champions League season, their value may never be higher. Whether that is a positive will be down to De Laurentiis and his vision of the club’s future. He stood by Napoli in the dark days of Serie C1 football in 2004 and helped commandeer a remarkable rise to the upper echelons of Serie A – it’s hard to believe he would deplete the squad by selling players unless it was in the best interests of the club.

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