Serie A 2013-14 season previews: Will Rafa Benítez be able to guide Napoli to a title challenge?

Giuseppe Bellini

While Napoli have had a strong summer in the transfer market, their lack of ability to shore up a frail defense remains worrisome. Add that to the loss of Edinson Cavani and questions remain about whether the partenopei will be able to mount a true title challenge this season.

The last time Napoli made the Champions League, a lack of squad depth caused their league form to suffer, and they could only finish sixth in Serie A. Some smart moves on the transfer market, and a manager less adverse to using youth and reserve players, should help combat that problem. But the partenopei have failed to adequately reinforce their frail defense, and losing their top goalscorer certainly won't help matters. Will they be able to challenge for the title this season?

Last Season

Finished second in Serie A. 29 league goals for Edinson Cavani. A place in this season's Champions League. Salvatore Aronica getting loaned to Palermo. All in all, it was very nearly a Napoli supporter's dream season. A true "vice-Cavani" and a couple of defenders and the side could have had another scudetto hanging on the wall.

Who's Gone?

Edinson Cavani: El Matador scored 38 goals in all competitions last season. 29 of those were in the league, the most in Serie A. And the forward was Napoli's best defender for the past two seasons. But he's gone to Paris Saint-Germain and yet Napoli aren't panicking. Why? €64m helps.

Hugo Campagnaro: Napoli let their best center back go on a free. Napoli have yet to replace their best center back. This is more than a little terrifying if you are a Napoli fan.

Morgan De Sanctis: Ok, so Morgan is an "unconventional" goalkeeper. During the matches in which teams actually bothered to attack, there was usually one moment of pure terror brought on by De Sanctis leaving his area or falling asleep. Now he's AS Roma's worry, but the fun will be missed.

Mario Santana: First loaned to Cesena, then to Torino. Neither were inclined to make the move permanent, but Genoa stepped into the breach. Can they please take Aronica as well?

Who's In?

Rafa Benítez: Walter Mazzarri finally capitulated, accepting an invitation from Inter Milan to drag them up from the depths of despair. But is Benítez really up to the task? Napoli will want a long Coppa Italia run, advancement in the Champions League and a scudetto challenge. Sure, Rafa won that one significant trophy once, but wow, it's been awhile.

Gonzalo Higuaín: Napoli's most significant purchase of the season has been bringing in Pipita to help compensate for the absence of Cavani. Alas, while Higuaín may be a great striker, he still stands in the shadow of Cavani, and every fan will be comparing his performances to that of the Uruguayan. Should Higuaín manage to achieve a mind-meld with Marek Hamsik and thus doing score 20 goals this season, Napoli supporters might be satisfied.

José Callejón: Brought in from Real Madrid to play out wide in Rafa's band of three, Callejón didn't impress much in preseason. But with fights on all three fronts this season, Napoli will do well to have decent depth -- and judging from Rafa's selections over the summer, it may not be the Spaniard that's on the bench.

Raúl Albiol: Napoli must've got a discount on flights from Madrid to Naples because they raided the Real reserves this transfer window. He plays defense and has an accent mark in his first name. What more is needed?

Dries Mertens: The Belgian winger comes to Napoli from PSV, where he scored 37 goals in 62 appearances over two seasons. Of course, that's in the Eredivisie, so cut those goals by half and that might approximate what will be seen from Mertens this season. That is, of course, if he earns a regular starting role under Rafa.

Pepe Reina: The Spanish keeper comes on loan from Liverpool to replace De Sanctis. Upgrade? Well, Reina makes hilarious blunders but then again, so did Morgan.

Pablo Armero: the Colombian joined Napoli on loan from Udinese last season, and the clubs made the move permanent this summer.

Rafael: Napoli's youngest signing comes from Brazilian side Santos. While Rafael likely won't get much time this season, it's clear that Rafael is meant to be their goalkeeper of the future.

Keep An Eye On

Rafa Benítez. In his nearly four seasons at Napoli, Walter Mazzarri lead his side to a third place finish and got them into the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Last season they almost looked like legitimate scudetto challengers. Even though, by the end of his reign, many were frustrated by Mazzarri -- primarily due to his tactical inflexibility and unwillingness to field young players -- he'll still be a tough act to follow. While Rafa may have won that one significant trophy while at Liverpool, that seems in the distant past now. His time at Inter could be classified as a failure and he certainly didn't do wonders with a talented Chelsea squad last season. He's got to start off hot -- beating the low-midtable sides in the early weeks, getting at least a point against AC Milan at the San Siro and performing well in the UCL group stages -- if he expects to stick around.

Predicted Finish

With so many changes made to this Napoli side, it's tough to predict if they'll be able to mount a scudetto challenge this season. On paper they look strong, with the signings of the talented Higuaín and Mertens, as well as the growing talent of Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik's ability to orchestrate the side. But the loss of Cavani will be a significant one, and if Benítez can't find the right starting XI to compensate, the partenopei may slide into the Europa League places once again.

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