Ladies and gentlemen, the Captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. When Serie A released the 2018/19 schedule on 26 July, many argued SSC Napoli had the stiffest competition to start the upcoming season. Doubters pointed to a new head coach, lack of significant signings and the sheer monumental task of repeating a record breaking 91 point performance last season as reasons Napoli would take a step back this year.
Then the season began, and Napoli staring down their doubters defiantly, with grit and an unwillingness to be counted out, earned two shocking come from behind victories against formidable foes, Lazio and AC Milan. The two games began in similar fashion. Napoli possessing the ball, moving well but without getting a quality scoring opportunity and then, in a blink of an eye, it all unraveled. Napoli were caught in transition and out of position compounding the error with a poor decision to either press at the wrong time or not to press at all. They eventually overcame their opponents and their deficit by increasing their intensity, keeping a level head and, with a few tactical changes from Mister Carlo Ancelotti, earned two victories.
As other top teams struggled against weaker opponents it looked, for a brief moment, that Napoli would once again challenge the might of Juventus and maybe have a good run in the UEFA Champions League to boot. Why not? The team had just shown what they were capable of and it combined all the magical play of Sarrismo with the tactical genius of Ancelotti. What could go wrong?
Sampdoria are a team no one wants to face in their stadium having beaten the likes of AC Milan and Juventus last year and traditionally boasting one of the best home records year after year. They would muster extra motivation to earn a victory in their first home game in Genoa following the devastating bridge collapse that ended 43 lives.
Similar to the first two games, Napoli would possess the ball early on and get a couple of scoring looks but it often appeared the players were over thinking their game. It didn’t take long for Napoli’s defense to once again get caught in transition, allowing an all too easy opportunity for Sampdoria’s Grégoire Defrel with little Napoli net-minder David Ospina could do about it. Expecting Napoli to once again raise their level of play and come from behind yet again, fans were instead left with disappointment as the attitude of the players turned sour. The play was nervous energy instead of focused determination. Passes were mistimed, crosses sailed wide and overall effort to win the ball diminished.
Some have placed blame on the pre-match substitutions that provided Simone Verdi and Amadou Diawara an opportunity to start over veterans José Callejón and Marek Hamšík respectively. While Simone Verdi did not seem to exude the same chemistry surprisingly witnessed during the preseason, the whole team lacked a proper energy and willingness to win the ball and take on defenders with passes through the final third instead of aimless crosses and shots from outside the box. Perhaps Ancelotti summed it up best,
“We again gifted the first half with a bad attitude, especially on the opening goal. We went 1-0 down, got worried and started to struggle.” The final nail came from the Neapolitan born Fabio Quagliarella who seemingly scooped the ball in midair and back-heeled it into the corner of the net. An astonishing effort and final goal that would finish Napoli off 3-0, the 6th goal they have surrendered in as many shots.
Perhaps there is some comfort in the stat that Napoli have given up 6 goals in 6 shots on net. While at first glance it would appear that Alex Meret, the young promising goal keeper who is sidelined with an arm fracture, is sorely needed, perhaps the stat can be seen as a bit of a silver lining. To have only given up 6 shots on goal through 3 games against quality opponents has to be commended. Hysaj commented,
“The defense is the same, even in the motions.” While that may be the case, there is clearly a disconnect that needs to be sorted quickly as there are quality opponents ahead that would love an opportunity to steal a game against one of the best Serie A has to offer.
Ancelotti will need to be creative in the coming weeks. Losing 14 players to international duty with games against Fiorentina and Torino on the horizon with an opening UEFA Champions League match against Red Star Belgrade sandwiched in between. Perhaps a calming temperate word from an unlikely source, Napoli’s president Aurelio De Laurentiis, is what is required to put things into perspective.
“I apologize to the fans who want to win everything and immediately, but they had a good taste in their mouths with our first two victories.
“I was expecting a bump along the way, knowing that seven or nine games were needed for us to settle.”