As soon as Aurelio De Laurentiis said that he wasn’t talking to Rafa about becoming his new manager we should have known the contract was as good as signed. For anyone who doesn’t know De Laurentiis’ previous proclamations (and they’re well worth a Google; Messi is a cretin and Lavezzi uses prostitutes are two highlights) he has a long history of saying whatever he wants to the press. Not that he fooled anyone with this, right from the start Benitez seemed too good a fit to ignore.
For a guy who’s won a Champion’s League, two Europa League’s, a Spanish League Title and an FA Cup, it’s surprisingly easy to feel sorry for Rafa. For the discerning English based football fan it always seems that he’s getting more abuse than he deserves, apparently hilarious though the Spanish waiter stuff is. His time at Chelsea cemented his place as a skilled manager who once said some vaguely contentious things about a couple of clubs that he wasn’t managing at the time and has been paying for it ever since. After doing a very good job in trying circumstances at Stamford Bridge his only option for further career redemption was to go abroad. Somewhere they don’t make the fat waiter jokes preferably.
Last season Napoli were the best of the rest in Serie A, comfortably finishing second behind Juventus, six points clear of AC Milan in third. A title challenge only briefly threatened to burst into life. In truth there was probably more distance between them and Juve than the nine points suggest. After the best part of four years Walter Mazzarri has left as manager to join Inter. There are rumours (as there are every year) that Edinson Cavani will leave. Rafa has issues to solve. When he looks at the teams around him he’ll find reasons for optimism. AC Milan are debating whether to sack their manager Allegri. Fiorentina look likely to sell Stevan Jovetic. Both Lazio and Roma look at least a few players short. And Inter are coming off one of their worst seasons in living memory with Mazzarri being brought in to attempt to turn the club around. Napoli are in a better position than most.
Replacing Cavani will likely be Rafa’s first order of business. It isn’t just his goals, although in finishing as top scorer with 29 in the league last season he scored close to 40% of his team’s total, that’s a difficult enough job by itself. Cavani is also rightly feted for his all round play, in particular his ability to hold up the ball so effectively. This role was crucial in the success of Mazzarri’s 3-4-3 system, allowing his team to keep the ball long enough to bring others into play. Napoli dealt with Lavezzi leaving for PSG last season with apparently few issues. From the outside Cavani looks impossible to replace. Rafa will be hoping that if their one truly exceptional player leaves the rest of the squad will contribute enough to make up the shortfall (an argument can be made that this is what happened post-RVP at Arsenal this season, they lost a 30 goal a season striker and responded by spreading the goals out among the team, finishing only 2 goals down on the 2011-12 total with no one player scoring over Walcott’s 14). Time will tell if Napoli can achieve this.
Rafa’s history at collecting trophies everywhere he’s been will be a welcome omen at a club still looking fondly back at the memory of Maradona making it look all too easy. He’ll be hoping to go one better than Mazzarri’s 2011-12 Copa Italia. After his Europa League success he has another Champions League to plan. The biggest question mark against his appointment is his unhappy six months at Inter in 2010. As with quite a few of the Inter managers not named Jose Mourinho you end up being surprised they lasted as long as they did. Aside from the difficulty in following Jose Rafa had to deal with the player the team was built around, Wesley Sneijder, deciding he was only going to play in a position that no longer existed. After issuing an ultimatum asking for new signings (something Rafa is prone to do, see Valencia and Liverpool) Moratti decided he rather wouldn’t and sacked him. The actual style of the league seemed to fit.
It’ll be interesting to see how Rafa sets his Napoli team up. In the past, whether it’s Valencia, Liverpool or Chelsea he’s favoured something like 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders allowing another further forward to dictate play. Napoli’s strength has been in their midfield fluidity. It seems likely he’ll move away from having three at the back. Defensively they had the second best record in the league last season, suggesting there isn’t too much wrong. They also scored the most goals. Aside from improving their record in Europe and trying to get to the knockout stages of the Champions League, it will be a tough ask for Benitez to improve on this season’s stats (a sustained title challenge at the least is what he’ll be expecting).
Ultimately it will be the players brought in that’ll make or break Napoli’s season. They’ve previously had great success in bringing in players from South America and working the Italian market. With Rafa arriving they’ve been rumours Chelsea will swap Cavani for Torres plus £25 million. If it’s the Europa League version of Torres they buy it may even end up as a good deal. One consistent criticism of Rafa throughout his career has been that his transfer dealings haven’t been as successful as he would have hoped for (trying to sign Gareth Barry and sell Xabi Alonso will do that for you). If the network and systems are already in place at Napoli, and indications are that they are, then Rafa could focus on being a more continental style coach. Presumably he’s been given guarantees about how many of Cavani, Inler, Vargas and Hamsik will be sold. Keep hold of three, invest wisely and they could well be Juventus’ main challengers again.