Rafael Benítez can't afford to bench Marek Hamšík again

Giuseppe Bellini

Rafael Benítez left Napoli's best player out of his starting 11 on the weekend, and paid a heavy price.

There can be few genuinely world class players around that are as consistently underrated as Marek Hamšík. Save for a few tenuous rumours linking him with a move to Manchester United in January, there was remarkably little speculation surrounding Napoli's Slovakian midfielder, who, when on form, is surely the best player in the entire division.

Of course, there's no real reason to assume Hamšík isn't very happy at the San Paolo, or to doubt that he plans on sticking it out at Napoli for the long haul. But that doesn't usually stop the world's best players being rumoured to be moving here, there and everywhere during silly season. You'd think that a few more top teams would be eyeing the 26-year-old up than the reports suggest.

Unfortunately -- and more pertinently -- It's not just outside of Naples that Hamšík is underrated. Napoli's very own coach, Rafael Benítez, appears to be making the same error; not truly appreciating the importance of the partenopei's star playmaker. Either that, or he's just supremely arrogant.

This weekend's game against Atalanta was a prime example. Benítez benched Hamšík for the seventh time this season, clearly believing that Goran Pandev would be able orchestrate play when playing off lone striker Duván Zapata. After all, Atalanta are only a mediocre mid-table outfit, aren't they?

Suffice to say, his selection backfired in a hilariously calamitous fashion.

It was one of the worst performances Napoli have produced in years, and they went down 3-0. Sure, Atalanta's goals invariably came as the result of typical partenopei defensive blunders, but that shouldn't deflect attention from the fact that they were just as miserable going forward. They barely created a single clear-cut chance in the entire match, and few would argue they were unfortunate to lose by such a margin.

His selection backfired in a hilariously calamitous fashion

Without Hamšík, it's hardly surprising Napoli struggle. The likes of the partenopei winger José Callejon -- who is undoubtedly enjoying a great season -- aren't creative enough to consistently unlock defences by themselves. They need to have a player like Hamšík around to take advantage of their penetrating movement, or to convert their crosses with a perfectly timed run into the box.

It has been apparent for quite a while now that Pandev just isn't good enough for a scudetto-challenging team, and it was even more so against Atalanta. On the ball he is too slow, too ponderous; lacking the mental and technical dexterity of Hamšík in the final third. With him in the team, they're too predictable, and too easy for a low-block defence to keep quiet.

Hamšík wasn't the only player that Benítez benched against Atalanta, with Napoli's other attacking star, striker Gonzalo Higuaín, also omitted. Of course, that too now looks an inexcusable decision, though given that Napoli's problem was creating chances rather than converting them, it seems less of an error than benching the talismanic Hamšík.

Unsurprisingly the Italian media hasn't taken kindly to either being left out. Tuttonapoli.net described the game as the "suicide of Bergamo." Sports newspaper Tuttosport went even further, lambasting the coach for making an "unforgivable mistake," and proclaiming that he hasn't understood that "when you face teams like Atalanta away, you must play with your best players to avoid making such a fool of yourself as he did yesterday." Without doubt, they are both correct.

Perhaps more than most, Benítez values the importance of squad rotation in keeping players fresh. But when considering that Hamšík started all but one of Napoli's league games under Walter Mazzarri last season, and has been benched seven times as often already this season, it's clear he's going overboard and making the kind of puzzling decisions which haven't exactly endeared him to some of his former clubs.

Whether it's arrogance, stubbornness or otherwise, Benítez's team selections are costing the partenopei points. Certainly, Napoli being so reliant on Hamšík isn't ideal. But as long as he's around and fit, he needs to be on the field. Otherwise, what's the point in having him at all?

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