2nd; W23 D9 L6
After struggling last season to compete on three fronts -- the Coppa Italia, Serie A and the Champions League -- Napoli decided to follow a "less is more" philosophy this season. Perhaps it was unintentional, but Napoli's failure to advance past the Round of 16 in the Coppa left them free to focus attention elsewhere after the winter break. Coach Walter Mazzarri spoke publicly about his lack of ambition in the Europa League, and when the partenopei were out before March rolled around, their league form benefited.
Unfortunately for Napoli, by March, the title race had all but been decided. By Round 28, when Napoli fell to Chievo Verona, the azzurri were nine points back of Juve and it was clear that only a major meltdown would put Napoli on the winners' podium. But despite pushing in Europa, falling out of the Coppa and not grabbing the scudetto, the season was certainly a success, and Napoli celebrated second place like they were lifting a trophy.
Most significant match
Juventus 2-0 Napoli (20 October 2012)
It's not often that a side's most significant match comes so early in the season, but Napoli's loss to Juve in the eighth round set the stage for an uneventful title race. Prior to the match in Turin, the partenopei had claimed 19 points from a possible 21, and looked to be legitimate challengers for the scudetto. But the meeting between the two clubs showed the rift in quality between the squads -- or perhaps simply highlighted the differences between the managers guiding each.
As the match headed into the last thirty minutes without a goal, Antonio Conte saw that his team needed adjustments. His first was to swap Alessandro Matri for Fabio Quagliarella, but, this being Juventus, the real changes occurred behind the forwards. Arturo Vidal made way for Paul Pogba and Martín Cáceres took the place of Kwadwo Asamoah. Walter Mazzarri changed nothing, most likely hoping for a point from the match. Instead, just two minutes after Conte made his final substitution, Pogba scored, with Cáceres adding a second two minutes later. It was then that Mazzarri made his subs -- but the damage was done, both in the match and, insofar as those reactionary substitutions continued throughout the season, to their title-winning hopes.
When you're 27 and have spent much of your career moving from club to club, trying to establish yourself as a regular starter, you've got to think you're destined for less than greatness. When he signed from Parma in 2011, Blerim Džemaili looked nothing more than a pretty good squad player -- someone Walter Mazzarri could start in the Coppa Italia and bring on late in games when they needed a player to repetitively fire shots from midfield. However, this season that changed, with the Swiss breaking into the first team over the previously-undroppable midfielder Gökhan Inler. Partnered with the more defensive Valon Behrami, Džemaili was given the freedom to break forward, rewarding Mazzarri's patience with a career-best return of seven league goals, including his first ever hat-trick. Having proven his worth under Mazzarri, he now needs to impress Rafael Benítez to stay in the starting eleven.
Naming the Napoli coach, who has brought the club back into the Champions League not once but twice while coaxing near-hidden talent out of certain players, as a disappointment...well, that's always going to be a controversial move. But this partenopei side had the talent to legitimately challenge Juventus for the title, and Mazzarri's conservatism was the primary reason Napoli fell away from the race.
Of course, most Italian coaches, when away from home or playing a difficult match, will elect to play for a point after the hour mark (and Mazzarri probably deserves credit for almost always going for all three points from the beginning). But Mazzarri's true weakness lies in his inability to let go of the set starting XI etched in his mind. Despite the apparent talent exhibited by Lorenzo Insigne last season, the youngster found starts only when either Goran Pandev or Edison Cavani had to miss a match.
What needs changing?
Now that they're back in the Champions League, Napoli need to learn the beauty of squad rotation -- a policy they certainly didn't embrace last time around. The partenopei were utterly exhausted by March, and unable to qualify for the top tournament for the next season.
Should Napoli receive a hefty chunk of change for Cavani, they certainly should spend some on a top striker -- they're not Juventus and as much as Dzemaili loves a speculative shot, the majority of the goals aren't going to come from the midfield. But if Cavani stays, the club would do well to spend wisely on players who don't expect a regular start. And then actually use those players once in awhile (Edu Vargas? Who's that? And where's Josip Radošević hiding?).
Finally, if Benitez plans to continue with a three-man backline, it would be wise to invest in centerbacks that don't routinely put the ball past their own keeper. And if he's shifting to a four-man defense, than he needs to be told right now that Christian Maggio should never play right-back again.
Who's off in the summer?
Well, Mazzarri's already out the door, having been replaced by Rafa Benitez. And didn't everyone just love Aurelio De Laurentiis making that announcement via Twitter? We can only hope every managerial change is conducted in the same manner.
Napoli supporters will be chewing their fingernails up until the transfer window slams shut in August. It's bad enough that star player has been linked with the likes of Manchester City, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Even though Edinson Cavani has a €63m release clause, it's likely he'll be off to bigger sides in the summer. But despite Napoli clinching the Champions League, it seems they're at risk of others leaving, particularly if Mazzari can entice them to Inter. Already Juan Zuniga and Gokhan Inler have been linked with Mazzarri's new club.
If Napoli could keep one individual...
Not Edinson Cavani?!?
No. Marek Hamsik. In the absence of Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Slovak stepped up his game and finally -- finally -- became the player so many have been hoping for over the past few years. A slight shift in formation pushed Hamsik deeper, playing directly behind the strikers rather than wide in the famed Lavezzi - Cavani - Hamsik trident. From this central position, Marekiaro is better able to orchestrate play and provide a much-needed link between the defense and the attack. His improvement is apparent from a glance at the stats: Hamsik, involved in every league match this season, recorded 14 assists -- the most in Serie A -- and notched 11 goals of his own.