NAPLES, ITALY - JULY 29: Marek Hamsik (R) with his teammate Lorenzo Insigne celebrate after scoring the opening goal during the preseason friendly match between SSC Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen at Stadio San Paolo on July 29, 2012 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
The partenopei may have been everyone's favourite hipster team last season, but unless Walter Mazzarri takes a more flexible approach, it's unlikely Napoli will reach the Champions League next time around.
They may have impressed last season in the Champions League, but Napoli's path since then has been confusing and strange. Their squad remains tiny and they've done nothing to fix a defensive problem that grew steadily worse last season. Unless Walter Mazzarri has a few tricks up his sleeve, everyone's favorite hipster team will quickly be forgotten.
5th. Napoli's first season in the Champions League in two decades taught the club a hard lesson in how to fight a battle on many fronts. First: have a squad big enough to rotate players. The usual starting XI were absolutely knackered by March, and it showed in every move. Second: find a way to change tactics. Sure, Champions League opponents were surprised by Mazzarri's 3-4-2-1, and could barely react before the ball went into the goal on a surging counter-attack. But fellow Serie A teams had learned how to stymie it, keeping Napoli out of this season's CL positions.
Ezequiel Lavezzi: Certainly the biggest name to leave the partenopei, El Pocho -- and his whiny girlfriend -- were tempted away by the glories of Paris, and the Argentine attacker will be dribbling his way around the PSG pitch. Often criticised for his lack of goals, Lavezzi was nevertheless a crucial cog in the Napoli system, and won't be replaced easily.
Walter Gargano: This one left many scratching their heads in confusion. After a rather disappointing 2010-11 season, the Uruguayan made his presence felt in the Napoli midfield last year. He was integral to breaking up play, the last line in front of a rather shaky three-man defence. But now he's gone to Inter Milan on loan.
All bit players for Napoli, but when you see the size of their squad, you really have to wonder if they can afford to be sending players out the door. One injury and they'll be pulling fans out of the stands to stand in defence.
Goran Pandev: On loan from Inter last season, the Macedonian enjoyed a bit of a revival in Naples, scoring goals in critical matches. With Lavezzi gone, Mazzarri is taking the radical step of shifting to a 3-5-1-1, putting Pandev in behind El Matador.
Valon Behrami: Aurelio De Laurentiis got a little overexcited by his Panini sticker book, and decided he needed a full set of Swiss to complete his collection. Behrami joins compatriots Blerim Dzemaili and Gokhan Inler in the partenopei midfield, which seems rather crowded at the moment.
Omar El Kaddouri: Signed the day before the season started, the midfielder comes in from Serie B, where he scored seven goals for Brescia last season. How he'll shift Walter Mazzarri's starting XI, well, that remains to be seen.
Keep An Eye On
Edinson Cavani. Well, who else? Most -- including many Napoli supporters -- figured he'd be gone this summer, particularly with a lack of Champions League play to entice him to stay. But it's unlikely he'll stay much longer, particularly if he has a stunning season. El Matador can be frustrating at times, with a strange ability to miss the simplest shots. But more often than not, he's just a joy to watch. What other striker can you think of that's also his team's best defender? Cavani is playing his own brand of total football down in Naples.
(We'd also like to say keep an eye on Lorenzo Insigne, back from his year at Pescara. He was one of the top scorers in Serie B and deserves a chance to break into the Napoli first team, but Mazzarri isn't too keen on youth. So it may be more of a "Where's Wally/Waldo" thing for Insigne).
Midtable. Napoli are slipping. They looked good in preseason, but they didn't do enough to shore up their squad during the summer, and really did absolutely nothing to reinforce a fragile defence. Oddly enough, Napoli have quality in defence, particularly in Miguel Britos and Federico Fernandez, but they simply aren't used. If Mazzarri doesn't come around to the idea of using the likes of these defenders -- outside of preseason tournaments--, along with Insigne and Eduardo Vargas up top, the partenopei will find themselves out of European play altogether. And Mazzarri will likely find himself out of a job.