It has been three years since Napoli made a huge double-edged statement in a bid to climb back to Italian football’s peak, and again they find themselves at a crossroads.

In the summer of 2013, Rafael Benitez, fresh from success against the tide at Chelsea, and Gonzalo Higuain, looking for regular first team football after a frustrating spell at Real Madrid, arrived in the hope of taking a real challenge to intense rivals Juventus for the scudetto. It never really materialised.

By that point, the Bianconeri had won two successive titles and reasserted themselves at the top after a turbulent decade, mostly centring around the calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Three years on, Napoli, themselves no strangers to off field issues having been declared bankrupt in 2004, are without both Benitez and Higuain and the rebuilding starts again.

Success proved illusive for Benitez before he departed for Real Madrid last year, finishing third and fifth in his two seasons at the Stadio San Paolo, while Higuain came into his own under new boss Maurizio Sarri, netting 36 goals as the Partenopei ran closer than ever, clinching second place.

They may not have the numbers to compete with the likes of Juve, Milan and Inter, but Napoli are a club brimming with history. Their aim, since the glory days of Diego Maradona in the 1980s and early 90s, has always been to get back there, and at times it has looked like they may do, under both Sarri and the man who preceded Benitez, Walter Mazzarri.

But their foes in Turin have proven too strong on many an occasion, and in truth it looks unlikely to change any time soon. Football in Italy has a unique feel, but in Naples fans are not afraid to take extreme measures to show the love for their club. If all is well, the atmosphere is amazing, if not then hostility is ramped up, but either way it is a spectacle to behold.

When Juventus poached Higuain from their grasp, paying a £75million buyout clause in his contract in the closed season, Napoli were stunned, forced to pick over the bones of a shattering blow, while still attempting to continue Sarri’s good work over the coming years.

This is a club for the people, with fans who love a talisman, and that is part of the reason Higuain will never be forgiven. Maradona, Higuain and Edinson Cavani, amongst others, have shouldered the responsibility of bringing success to this most unique of football clubs, but they have changed tactic as they continue to push for as third league title in their history.

Luring Higuain was in direct response to the sale of Cavani, for over £50million, to Paris-Saint Germain. The Argentine provided a guarantee of success given his experience, but his replacement, Arkadiusz Milik, a 22-year-old Polish striker from Ajax, cannot make the same promises. His arrival has very much been part of a theme, too.

Younger players with potential have been recruited to work under Sarri, meaning Napoli are looking further into the future than ever before. Amadou Diawara, Marko Rog and Piotr Zielinski, three other examples, are unlikely to hit the ground running, but the trio of exciting midfielders will go far, given time.

Diawara, a central midfielder signed from Bologna, was chased by a host of European clubs, but forced through a move to Napoli. The 19-year-old Guinean’s growth in Italy has been rapid, enjoying a single stellar campaign in Serie A. His pace, strength and power are typical of a player of his ilk, but his technical abilities set him apart and he should thrive in years to come.

Most impressive about these signings is the versatility between them. Rog is more creative and has an eye for goal. Though he has only signed on loan from Dinamo Zagreb initially, Napoli will be obligated to make the deal permanent for €12.5million come the end of the season. Should he fulfil his potential, that fee will prove a steal, and Rog, 21, could possibly take the mantle as chief playmaker from long–serving midfielder Marek Hamsik.

Liverpool were keen on 22-year-old Polish international winger Zielinski, reportedly failing to lure him from Udinese early in the summer before a deal was struck to keep him in Italy as the transfer deadline ticked closer. Extremely talented with tricks and pace in abundance, at 5 ft 11 he is powerful and strong, offering something different to Dries Maertens out wide. Despite only playing a handful of times in Udine, Zielinski really came into his own on loan at Sarri’s former club Empoli last season, scoring five goals in 35 Serie A games.

Gonzalo Higuain’s exit may cast a dark shadow for Napoli, and their title challenge may be over before it starts in the eyes of some, but with four excellent young players in Milik, Diawara, Rog and Zielinski all moving to the club, something exciting may just be brewing in southern Italy over the coming years.

About the author – Harry De Cosemo

Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish and Italian football. He has worked for a number of top publications including MARCA in English, uMAXIT football, FourFourTwo, Squawka and the Press Association.

twitter: @harrydecosemo

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With Juventus, Roma, Milan and Napoli all failing to pick up three points, it was an opening weekend that hinted at a competitive season to come in Serie A. While Udinese’s shock victory away to Juve was the standout result, the likes of Fiorentina, Sassuolo and Sampdoria were all also impressive as they got their respective campaigns off to the perfect start.

The same cannot be said for Bologna who, in truth, shocked no-one by succumbing to a 2-1 defeat away at Lazio. It was a tough start for the side who won the Serie B play-offs back in June, but there was enough about Delio Rossi’s outfit to suggest that survival is well within their reach this term.

New signing Mattia Destro began the game on the Rossoblu bench, the Italy international enjoying only 14 minutes of action after replacing Robert Acquafresca late on. Destro will be handed more game-time as the season progresses, with the capture of the 24-year-old this summer representing something of a coup for Bologna.

It is a big campaign for Destro, who surprised many by pitching up in Emilia-Romagna after a summer of being linked with the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Milan, the club he spent the second half of last season at on loan from Roma. The striker’s goalscoring record in Serie A is generally good but, after spending much of his three seasons with the Giallorossi as a substitute, Destro must now seize his chance to make an impression as his new team’s main man.

Having been part of Inter’s academy as a youngster, Destro made his professional bow for Genoa in 2010 after being included as a makeweight in the deal that took Andrea Ranocchia in the opposite direction.

A goal on his debut hinted at big things to come, but the youngster struggled to nail down a place in the starting XI and was subsequently loaned to Serie A new boys Siena the following campaign. Finding the net 12 times helped the Bianconeri avoid the drop and earned Destro a move to Roma for an initial fee of £8m.

His time in the capital was a frustrating one: despite a decent scoring record – 29 strikes in all competitions in 68 appearances, only 42 of which came from the beginning of matches – Destro was mostly a back-up to Roma legend Francesco Totti.

It was at times puzzling that Rudi Garcia did not turn to him more often, particularly when Roma were crying out for a plan B during some particularly rough patches of form, but ultimately Destro did not do enough to convince his manager that he deserved a more regular slot in the team. His five-month spell at Milan in 2014-15 was slightly underwhelming, although that description would be applicable to the entire club last term.

Destro must therefore make good on his undoubted potential at Bologna this time around. A traditional No. 9 – despite being handed the No. 10 jersey by the Rossoblu – who comes alive in the penalty area but does not offer much outside it, Destro will be judged almost exclusively on his goalscoring return.

A lack of involvement in the build-up play could work to his advantage for Bologna, a side who will spend many games camped back in their own half, restricted to the counter-attack and needing a cool and clinical figure to convert their chances up top. Should Destro put the ball between the sticks on enough occasions, he will prove to be worth far more than the £5.95m that Bologna paid Roma for his services last week.

With the European Championship coming up in France and fellow Italian frontmen Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli enduring a difficult last 12 months, Destro could even force himself back into the international picture.

It is not quite make or break time yet, but a good campaign at Bologna would do wonders for Destro’s career.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball




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