Napoli's last appearance in the Champions League was no doubt a memorable one, if not a bittersweet memory for their fans. Their thrilling tie against Chelsea ended in a stunning Roberto Di Matteo-inspired comeback, which is often cited as the catalyst for the Blues' incredible run to the final, and eventually, triumph.
However, the fallout for Napoli is less documented and far less stirring. Sitting fourth in Serie A with 46 points between the two legs of the Chelsea tie, and looking odds-on to nail down another season of elite European competition, they went on to lose five of their last 11, finishing with just 15 points from those games and thus outside the elusive Champions League places.
It became a recurring theme: Napoli shining brightly, but fading when it mattered most. Part of it could be attributed to Walter Mazzarri's pessimism, the coach insisting that "second place is a scudetto for us" -- hardly endorsing a winning mentality. The enduring feeling with Napoli has always felt like they were underdogs, and even now, despite a second place finish in Serie A, it feels unnatural to consider them title contenders for the new campaign. Continually losing key players underlines the feeling, with Edinson Cavani moving this summer to PSG to follow in the footsteps of Ezequiel Lavezzi, who departed in 2012.
The arrival of Rafa Benitez this summer is supposedly a shift in fortunes. The appointment of a manager with "elite" pedigree is supposed to be a signal of intent, as is the vast money that club president Aurelio De Laurentiis has spent on new signings. Oddly, for a club that finished second, it's a revamp, but perhaps a necessary one, to shake Napoli out of the "losing mentality" and help them take that next step in establishing themselves amongst Europe's elite.
Central to that is Marek Hamsik. He's the remaining piece of Mazzari's "Three Tenors" jigsaw, the trio that was so vital in their storming success in the 2011-12 Champions League. Operating as the most advanced in an unorthodox 3-4-3 formation, Lavezzi provided the width, Cavani provided the goals, and Hamsik provided a blend of both -- but in the absence of his now Parisian-based counterparts, Hamsik has had to become something else.
In short, he's become the central creative outlet. Previously, Napoli didn't desperately need creativity given their tendency to sit back and play on the break, but as they've become more and more of a known quantity, they've had to become more and more comfortable for long periods of possession, thus requiring more subtle playmaking from their attacking players.
That has reached a zenith this season -- contrary to what you might think, Benitez actually has fashioned a more varied side than the counter-attacking team you might expect from the Spaniard, and the difference is most notable in their pressing -- it's much higher up the pitch, somewhat reflective of their intended new stance as a "big club."
In this regard, Hamsik's energy is vital, as he helps lead the closing down alongside Gonzalo Higuain, but more important is his role in possession as the chief creator. Napoli don't have a player anywhere near as comfortable in creating chances: the midfield duo of Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami is more about physicality than playmaking, while Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne play as wide forwards, driving towards goal from the flanks.
'I'd say you can't put a price on Hamsik'
Hamsik is at the heart of everything Napoli have done well this season. You don't have to look any further than his last performance, off the bench against Atalanta, where his introduction in the 66th minute helped lift Napoli's spirit and sparked a 2-0 win. Benitez would certainly have appreciated the influence of his substitute, having already gushed about Hamsik's qualities earlier this season. "Is Bale worth the 100 million euros Real Madrid paid for him?" asked the Spaniard rhetorically in a news conference. "If so, then I'd say you can't put a price on Hamsik."
"He's a player who can make the difference and giving him such a responsibility could contribute to enhance his self-esteem for the future," he also said, emphasising his "tactical intelligence," an area of the game in which Benitez believes he "is stronger than Steven Gerrard."
Hamsik's creative onus should become more prominent if Benitez keeps with his long-held philosophy in taking a cagier approach to continental clashes. Emphasising a strong defensive structure, and only allowing a few players to break forward at a time is a superb way to win in Europe, and is probably advisable against a team like-- last year's runners-up and a side boasting incredible attacking talent.
Benitez will probably ask his wide players to be extremely disciplined, tracking back to help protect the full-backs -- and with Dortmund's front four always looking to overload opponents in wide areas, these instructions will be especially important.
It in turn increases the responsibility on Hamsik to pick up the ball at transitions and help drive Napoli forward. "I have an eye for goal -- I'm drawn towards the goal, and I'm always looking for an opening," he once said, and with Benitez likely to try and make Napoli's return to the Champions League a tight, scrappy encounter, that individual inspiration could prove pivotal.