Jose’s Doubled-Edged Sword

“So, you won the Champions League and you were sacked…”
“You get right to the point.”

It didn’t take long for the press to remind Roberto di Matteo of that night, or indeed that cold morning in Cobham when he was given his marching orders, a mere six months after taking over from Andre Villas-Boas.

It took even less for Jose Mourinho to fire one of his traditional broadsides.

“The Champions League, many, many times I say, is not a consequence of a great work,” the Portuguese manager told reporters. “Sometimes it is not. You can win the Champions League in the worst season. You can finish fifth and win the Champions League… Liverpool did, and Chelsea, too.”

These statements are obviously a classic Jose mind game, but they go further than that. The Champions League may be hard to predict, but this does not explain why, say, Chelsea won it all in 2012 with a depleted squad and why they didn’t in 2005. This kind of comment has a lot to do with the Portuguese’s hurt pride than he would like to admit.

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“Nu’ fuoc’ ‘e paglia”

One of the first things I learned at University was that history doesn’t repeat itself. After all, how can a series of complicated, interwoven phenomena always produce the same exact result? Isn’t it rather the case that hindsight is 20-20, and that we tend to oversimplify things in order to fit a particular narrative? Good thing we put that notion to bed. Now, what were we talking about again?



For the uninitiated, the first clip was of Juan Mata scoring Chelsea’s sole effort in Naples two years ago in a 3-1 defeat. Game over, right? Wrong. Chelsea won the return leg 4-1, exploiting some more lax defending as well as a series of woeful Cavani misses to power their way to the 2012 Champions League final. The second is of Aritz Aduriz exploiting a hesitant Napoli defense to send Athletic Bilbao through to the Champions League group at Napoli’s expense.

Wednesday evening’s elimination proves that it really is possible to always be the bridesmaid without ever being the bride, especially if you’re a club like Napoli, and you have repeatedly failed to make much headway in Europe or even come anywhere near winning the Serie A (their best score was 9 in 2012-13. Last year they were 24 points short of Juventus).

This is not to disparage what the Partenopei have done over the past few years: they’re hardly Sophie Thompson‘s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral (who actually ends up getting married, but whatever), but rather one of Serie A’s most spectacular sides since returning to the fold in 2007.

Trust me, as an Inter fan with a dystopian view of his club and Serie A’s future, Napoli have done a lot to restore my faith in Italian football, what with that powerful combo of attacking midfielders, Higuain’s finish in the first leg… you get the picture. But two Coppa Italia trophies are a poor return for a team that always threatens to compete before fading away, with Wednesday night’s debacle causing fans to demand spending and results, and not necessarily in that order either.

It certainly wouldn’t be fair to expect title upon title from Napoli either, or indeed expect them to win the Champions League (though De Laurentiis has certainly tried). For every Lavezzi or Cavani, Napoli have also had to make do with the Mestos, Cannavaros and the Garganos of this world. But why haven’t they come close, even just once? Or made a deep run in Europe? Are they what Americans would call “chokers”, or have they actually over-performed in coming second and third in the past two seasons?

It actually turns out that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does come pretty close. Though Napoli have had many different iterations since they came up in 2007, the end result is very similar, whether they show up with a porous defence (last night) or a wasteful forward line (Edinson Cavani at Stamford Bridge in 2011-12), whether they attack head on (Benitez) or on the counter (Mazzarri). An exception should also be made for the Europa League- which former coach Walter Mazzarri never took seriously (I’m sure De Laurentiis fully agreed) and often used as an excuse to trot out the reserves.

Worse, there is a common thread to all of these underwhelming results. It is said insanity is doing the same things over and over and hoping it all works out. Aurelio De Laurentiis’ Napoli are guilty of just that. A prime example is the kind of players the Partenopei bring in, or rather how meager the returns have been on signing centre-backs. Albiol and Britos both cost over €8 million, and Victor Ruiz just under that. To put it kindly, they’ve not exactly been slam-dunks, though Albiol can certainly improve. Ruiz, for his part, lasted a whopping six months. De Laurentiis generally prefers cheaper options who work fine in Serie A, but come undone in Europe (Cannavaro, Aronica, Grava, Campagnaro, Gamberini). It was Cannavaro who provided us with that moment of unintended hilarity that Mata was so happy to profit from.

Buying defenders in Italy is a tough business these days- just look at how the league’s decreasing prestige and buying power has seen many big stars (Thiago Silva, Mehdi Benatia) leave, or how Juventus pieced their back three from recycled parts (Barzagli), in-house talent (Chiellini) and young Italian potential. The obvious names for the latter category are Leonardo Bonucci and Angelo Ogbonna, two players who show just how risky it is to invest in Italian talent. But Juventus and Roma conceded 23 and 25 goals respectively last year, Napoli 39, on a par with Inter. Hardly a breathtaking performance.

Truth of the matter is that the Partenopei always seem to have something missing, whether they’re looking to put out a truly competitive starting XI, going for European glory, or even simple respectability: having done remarkably well in their first season back from purgatory in 2007-8, Napoli spent several years floating around the Top 10, alternating brilliant home performances with disappointing outings. In 2008-9, the squad looked capable of shooting for the stars with the likes of Hamsik, Lavezzi and Maggio, and racked up 20 points in their first nine outings. Regrettably, they then failed to win a game in three and a half months, leading to coach Edy Reja’s sacking.

It’s like Napoli have to do accompany every good decision with a bad one, whether it is having Marcelo Zalayeta and Michele Pazienza in that 08-09 squad, or even hiring a good coach like Walter Mazzarri, the man who saved a Reggina side that had begun the 05-06 season with a 15 point penalty. Mazzarri could get the best out of his creative players, motivate his men and cook up a very good gameplan, but could also be tactically inflexible at the worst times. His failure to shore up the back line at Stamford Bridge will stay with him for a long time.

Napoli have arguably ramped things up over the past couple of seasons: bringing in Mertens on the cheap, as well as Callejon and Higuain from Napoli, and Insigne back from his loan to Pescara. Faouzi Ghoulam is a very promising player, and Benitez just the man to bring them European success. But just as things looked set for a turnaround, the bad news hit like a hurricane: it turns out we all forgot that Benitez doesn’t do leagues (his last win in 2004-5, before I could legally drive. Not that I do anyway), and was outsmarted in Europe, the very stage he normally excels in. We also discovered that Napoli’s choice to bring in cheap players from less fancied European leagues (a very market efficient approach) doesn’t always pay off. Khalidou Koulibaly can certainly become someone special, but needs time to adapt to life after the GAUNTLET that is the Belgian league. Why on earth was he starting against Athletic? Why was Michu watching the return leg from the stands?

It’s hard to disagree with the title of this piece, a Neapolitan expression for “[this team is] a flash in the pan”, uttered by a dejected fan as the defense bumbled its way to conceding a third goal. All this feeds into an increasingly depressed mindset. Napoli fans are somewhat like Philadelphia Eagles supporters, always close, always sucked in, never winning anything in the NFL. Even a quick backwards glance does seem to confirm that Napoli don’t just take the long road, they cover it in marbles and go about the task with their stilettos. It goes back to former owner Achille De Lauro, who spent a whopping 105 million lira to tempt Nordic superstar Hasse Jepson back in 1952, expecting the titles to rain down on the back of his massive spending spree. He would not live to see the day when Diego Maradona lifted the trophy a whole 35 years later, though he went out with a bang, bossing around his coaches and sacking players like nobody’s business. Even with El Pibe at the helm, Napoli never even got close to winning the European Cup, all whilst being accused of blowing a title race in order to help the local Camorra make a killing (a financial one, not that they mind much either way).

Let’s just hope Napoli don’t make life too hard for themselves this season. After all, things like this tend to happen when they don’t.