Napoli must try to salvage a bad season with the Champions League crown

Francesco Calzona
Francesco Calzona

published 22:32, 03 March 2024

SSC Napoli secured their first league title in 33 years when they were crowned champions of the Italian Serie A in May 2023. Under the instructions of then-gaffer Luciano Spalletti, Gli Azzurri ran out Champions with a whopping 90 points.

Spalletti left shortly after to take charge of the Italian national team. The Italian manager announced he was headed for a sabbatical as there was nothing more he could offer Napoli. 

Since then, three different managers have taken charge at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona — Rudi Garcia, Walter Mazzari, and now Francesco Calzona. Spalletti’s exit was followed by star defender Kim Min Jae’s departure to German side Bayern Munich as well as forward Hirving Lozano to Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven.


Where it all fell apart

Napoli picked up former Al Nassr head coach Rudi Garcia to begin the new campaign in place of Luciano Spalletti. Coming highly recommended with 20+ years of experience in management across Europe, he got off to a flying start with successive wins over Frosinone and Sassuolo.

The signs began to split the crack over the next 4 more games with just a lone win over Braga in the Champions League.

At this point, SSC Napoli had become a shadow of the free-flowing footballing side on show in the 22/23 season.

With many players beginning to suffer a dip in form and most remarkably, squabbles between Garcia and Capocannoniere winner Victor Osimhen over in-match substitutions. Rudi Garcia’s time lasted none more than 16 games, as he was shown the exit doors following the loss to Empoli in mid-November courtesy of a 91st-minute goal by substitute Viktor Kovalenko.

Familiar face Walter Mazzari — who had earlier spent four years at the club between 2009 and 2013 was brought on to steady the ship. Getting past Atalanta via a 2-1 victory, his next three games all ended in defeats. 

Taking charge of the club for a total of 17 games, his tenure only accumulated 6 victories paving the way for current manager Francesco Calzona.

Napoli in 2023/24 UCL campaign so far

Napoli began their UCL exploits with an away win in Braga as Sikou Niakate’s 88th-minute own goal sealed the match. 

Napoli lost both encounters to the competition’s most successful team in Real Madrid, a 3-2 loss at home in Naples and a 4-2 defeat away in Madrid. 

Their remaining fixtures saw a victory against Union Berlin through Giacomo Raspadori’s lone goal and a draw in the return tie.

Osimhen’s return from injury in the last group stage fixture helped pick up a massive three points against Braga to take their point tally for the phase to 10 and helped the Serie A Champions reach the round of 16.

Napoli: other outings

Gli Azzurri currently sit 29 points off league leaders Inter Milan and are already looking almost mathematically impossible to defend their title.

In the Coppa Italia, Frosinone inflicted misery on the Naples-based outfit with four daggering goals in the last 25 minutes of play at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium seeing no reply at all from a struggling Napoli side.

Recall, Walter Mazzari ‘s tenure also saw defeat to Inter Milan in the SuperCoppa final. Lautaro Martinez effortlessly slotted Benjamin Pavard’s return ball past a helpless Pierluigi Gollini.

With no other inclinations aside from the continental campaign in the Champions League, Calzona’s side will fight tooth and nail to take whatever is left of their season over the next couple of months.

Arrivals Jesper Lindstrom, Cyril Ngonge, Jens Cajuste, and Natan amongst others are still trying to find a footing as they figure out their role in this relatively unbalanced team.

What next for Napoli?

Francesco Calzona’s start to life in Naples saw two successive draws against FC Barcelona and Cagliari Calcio before running past Sassuolo in a 1-6 away victory. A much-needed sigh of relief across a relatively unstable campaign.

Victor Osimhen’s return to full fitness following his Africa Cup of Nations exploits with the Super Eagles of Nigeria is a timely boost.

The forward has already racked up five goals in his first three games under the gaffer since his return. Just two short of the rest of his tally all season long. He would be fired up to add his numbers and try to help his side advance further in the Champions League.

With Napoli currently sitting in 9th place on the log and away from all European places, the side need to take all they can from the return leg against FC Barcelona. Ahead of that highly-anticipated fixture, Napoli tickets continue to sell fast.

The first leg saw Napoli set up in a very conservative approach with Victor Osimhen’s strike being the only shot on goal they amassed on their turf as opposed to FC Barcelona’s six.

Against a Barcelona side that currently sit 3rd in their domestic affairs behind rivals Real Madrid and neighbors Girona. Many questions should be asked of Xavi Hernandez’s side in the return leg on March 12th at the Camp Nou stadium.

Barcelona vs Napoli: All to play for in Spain

The league’s top four spot seems far off imagination and even the potential 5th spot earmarked to be awarded to the Italian league is prying away from their claws. 

Should Francesco Calzona (who’s still in charge of the Slovakian national team) seem to muster a sort of challenge to take them all the way, the side will not just secure a trophy but secure qualification ahead of the next UEFA Champions League campaign.

With the seemingly rekindled form of the star duo from last season – Khvicha Kvarastlelia and African best player Victor Osimhen on offer, – they really can hurt La Blaugrana in the return tie and make a statement as a dark horse to the title.

Barring the injury concern to Cyril Ngonge, Napoli should have no other concerns as they begin to mount their challenge for the 2023/24 UCL title.

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