Napoli May Be Entertainers, but They’re Not Really Winning Anything

Soccer Features
Napoli May Be Entertainers, but They’re Not Really Winning Anything

It took less than five minutes for Marek Hamsik to score. By the sixth minute, Lorenzo Insigne had added another. When the final whistle blew, Hamsik and Dries Mertens had both recorded hat-tricks in a 7-1 victory, Napoli’s largest in history away from home. The Bologna Twitter account spent 20 minutes of the match begging for mercy.

In a week in which Juventus hosted Inter in the Derby d’Italia, one of the country’s most hotly-contested rivalries, few expected Napoli to steal the show. But that’s what the partenopei have been doing all season long. They’ve scored the most goals in Serie A with 55, and, with just three defeats have lost the fewest number of games. Only one of their matches has ended in a goalless draw, and they absolutely adore the theatrical thrill of a last-minute, point-rescuing goal. Napoli are undeniably seductive, but those who fall for them will eventually be confronted with a harsh truth—namely, that these thrilling results won’t lead to any silverware.

Napoli’s 7-1 win was a joy to watch (for anyone not supporting Bologna, that is). But the scoreline hides a few pertinent details. In the 26th minute, Pepe Reina had to bail his side out with a diving save on Mattia Destro’s penalty shot—had Bologna made it 2-1 in that instant, the match may have ended differently, especially as José Callejón picked up a red card a minute later. It may not have mattered much in the end, but poor marking allowed Vasilis Torosidis to put the visitors on the scoresheet.

It was the seventh straight Serie A match in which Napoli had conceded a goal. It also marked Napoli’s 12th game unbeaten, a run in which they’d outscored their opponents 35-14. With film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis steering the club, it’s unsurprising that the focus is on offense rather than defense; it creates a better highlights package, after all. And why should it matter if Napoli are letting in goals, as long as they’re knocking in more than two for each one they allow their opponents?

The answer is trophies. For the past four years, Juventus have won the Serie A title, and they’re well on their way to a their fifth. A team with so many cracks in its defensive foundation can’t seriously challenge a bianconeri side that rarely gives up a goal.

The irony here is that Napoli believed they’d fixed their defensive issues, and were more in need of scoring more. The club managed to retain centerback Kalidou Koulibaly even after he’d been wooed by Chelsea. The Senegalese was the star at the heart of last season’s defense, and the additions of Nikola Maksimovi? and Lorenzo Tonelli, along with defensive midfielder Amadou Diawara, should have made Napoli’s defense a force to be reckoned with.

But Koulibaly hasn’t been nearly as good this season. Maurizio Sarri doesn’t seem to have figured out how to work Maksimovi? into his system. Raúl Albiol spent more than a month out with injury. Diawara has proved a valuable addition, but has made just seven starts.

So, Napoli remain the entertainers, determined to overcome their defensive weaknesses through offensive prowess. However, that offense is unlikely to sustain itself over the next crucial month. By the time March 7 rolls around, Napoli will have met Real Madrid twice in the Champions League, traveled to Juventus for the first leg of their Coppa Italia semifinal, and faced off against Roma in the league. Though their other domestic matches have involved weaker opponents, Napoli still drew with Genoa the first time around and lost at Atalanta. Sarri is getting better at rotating his squad, but a midweek effort still often leads to lapses in concentration in the following match. If Besiktas wore them down, imagine how they’ll perform after facing Real Madrid. Their opponents will likely have plenty of opportunities to exploit Napoli’s frail defense.

But maybe the fans see these enthralling matches as enough of a reward. This team, remember, was meant to decline after the summer departure of Gonzalo Higuaín, last season’s top scorer. Sarri, a former banker who hadn’t coached in Serie A before the age of 54, just four seasons ago, was expected to struggle as he balanced the demands of domestic play and Champions League. Dries Mertens was primarily a substitute last season, scoring just six goals. The club hasn’t won the Serie A title since 1990, in the final glory days of Maradona.

Yet De Laurentiis has spoken repeatedly about his desire to bring the scudetto back to Naples. And while we supporters might be entertained by this squad’s style and swagger, they’re getting a little too used to the Champions League group stages. A fight for third, meaning entry into the tournament’s final qualifying round, would not go down well. As that expectation for Champions League play grows, so too will the club’s domestic ambitions. Napoli will see themselves as a team able to finally knock Juventus off their perch. Unfortunately, that title won’t be won without greater attention to defense and discipline.

So, we must enjoy Europe’s entertainers while we can.

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