When the season began, everyone at Sempre! acknowledged the ambitions Napoli had for this season when training began in earnest two weeks before any other club returned from their vacation; win the Scudetto.
After losing just one match in the “ritorno” of Serie A, as well as putting on an impressive performance against European champions Real Madrid in the Round of 16 of the Champions League, everyone returned from last season and formed the now much talked about, “Scudetto Pact”.
At one point, they were on the best start of any team in Serie A history, and now at 12-2-1 with 38 points sit only one point behind 1st place Inter, who ironically are also having their best start in club history.
What can you say, that’s Napoli luck for you, but what about Napoli’s European ambitions?
After dismantling Mario Balotelli’s OSC Nice, finally breaking the duck of Serie A sides not qualifying to the Champions League proper via the playoff in the process, we were drawn with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Ukrainian Champions Shakhtar Donetsk and Eridevisie winners Feyenoord.
Most observers expected Napoli would advance, possibly even as group winners and looked to be one of the favorites to go far in the competition.
However, at Sempre! we realistically saw another round of 16 appearance or maybe a quarter-final place at best. However, we would never have thought that the side from the Fuorigrotta would be eliminated in the group stage.
Some might blame Maurizio Sarri’s rotation policy, or lack there of. Some might blame the loss of Arek Milik (again) and Faouzi Ghoulam, both cruelly to ACL injuries, for Napoli being in a do-or-die situation at Feyenoord.
Others have the notion that Napoli are solely focused on the Scudetto, and whatever comes in Europe is a bonus this season, as this is the best chance the club have had in recent history to halt Juventus’ title run of 6 successive Scudetti, finally dethroning the Old Lady.
As far as progression at Europe’s top table is concerned, the simple fact is that a Napoli win alone won’t be enough, as we rely on a favour from elsewhere in the form of Manchester City, who must defeat Shakhtar in Ukraine.
After Napoli’s loss to Feyenoord on Wednesday, they have punched their ticket to the Europa League. A competition that, this season in particular, is stacked with larger European sides. Now, I know some Napoli fans and fans of Calcio in general may call our somewhat apparent neglect of European football this season a “small club mentality”.
Frankly, I couldn’t care less what anyone think of our mentality, as long as it results in the Champions badge adorning our Kappa Kombat next season.
With all this in mind, what are the pros and cons of being in multiple competitions based on the current situation and obvious priorities at the club?
Europa League Pros:
1. This is a competition we can win.
Call me crazy, but I would not see winning the Europa as a failure to the season. It’s a European trophy for goodness sake. Even though people downplay the Europa League, the fact is that once all the cream rises to the top. This year especially, we will be seeing clubs like Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and Arsenal in the latter stages of the “lesser” European tournament. There are still some big matchups that can be drawn, especially if these bigger clubs advance to the latter stages of the tournament. Here’s the thing, our bench could maybe even win this thing. Which brings me to my next point;
2. Squad Rotation(?!)
Sarri has the total ability to utilize most, if not his entire bench in the Europa League. Especially if the draw favors us in the earlier knockout rounds. Players like Sepe, Maksimovic, Rog, and Ounas could, and probably should feature in these matches. New signings like Inglese could also be integrated better in these matches. Hell, bring up players like Esposito and Zerbin from the Primavera. We’d have the flexibility to get the “Classic XI” much, much needed rest.
3. Monetary gains
While the Europa league won’t bring in the type of money Champions league would have, we have already brought in a net of $17.5m from Europe’s biggest tournament, and that’s not including any TV or gate money. Winning the Europa League could see us net a total of 12.2m for winning and much more if other Serie A teams falter. That would allow us the ability to take more of the allocation money from the Serie A market pool. Oh, and we get automatic Champions League should we finish outside of 4th (wink)!
Europa League Cons:
1. End of the midweek? Thursday footie!
My dad has a saying, its “Nobody really likes playing on Thursday.” Mr. Rispo also says that Thursday is too close to the weekend and it’s worse than playing Tuesday or Wednesday. My take is that as long as Sarri rotates we can do well in both…next point…
2. What is rotation?
When players are injured or tired, managers, well some managers anyway, like to rotate their squad. Napoli’s “il Mister” Sarri has been quite stubborn in regard to this, as we all know. In the case of Dries Mertens, it has been more difficult after the injury to Milik, but we have a capable bench that can step in for some of the other tired souls out there. Sarri has given chances to Zielinski and Diawara in place of Jorginho and Allan. He will also rotate out Albiol for Chiriches on occasion. To the contrary though, our slumping captain, Marek Hamsik, has started every game this season. In the meantime, we’ve got Marco Rog itching to prove himself as a worthy replacement. The fact that Sarri rarely rotates his squad properly and NEVER rotates the front three (Insigne is out with an injury and is the only reason he was forced to start Zielinski on Wednesday) is mind boggling and ultimately can lead to the demise of our season’s hopes. So how can we have faith that given the opportunity, Sarri will properly rotate? He’s a stubborn man, and there’s no denying the fact that injuries and lack of rotation could doom Napoli this season.
3. Honestly, Europe is a “Con” this year!
Once again, if all of this comes at the expense of the Scudetto, I don’t want it. We need to crawl before we can walk.
The “Pros” to the Champions would have far outweighed those of the Europa. But, if you were to ask me, while the “Cons” of both are equal, I’d rather be dropped to the Europa League this season. It’s more practical when it comes to the Scudetto race, and that says it all for me. There’s no question we’re on to something big at Napoli. With all of the renewals we’ve put in place, we are building a foundation that we haven’t had in a while.
Being in the Champions League is a virtual given for quite some time, so we will be back. From this season forward, the top 4 in Serie A will be granted Group Stage Champions League football without a playoff. First, we have to build from the foundation we have made. Goals are made to be reached, and the goal is the Scudetto. Once we achieve that goal, we can work on becoming a powerhouse in Europe. Baby steps. So here’s hoping we can keep our eye on the prize and be able to say, we fought hard in Europe, but we’re CAMPIONI D’ITALIA!
By Raffa RispoFollow @RaffaNapoli83