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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Barcelona’s Luis Suárez signed off with a hattrick against Granada to take his tally to 40 goals for the season. This meant that not only did he become the first player other than Ronaldo or Lionel Messi to finish as La Liga’s top scorer since 2009, but he also won the European Golden Shoe.

For the second time in his career, Luis Suárez will be presented with the European Golden Shoe, having previously shared the prize with Ronaldo in 2014. The Golden Shoe caps a fantastic season for the Uruguayan who has scored a total of 59 goals in 52 appearances.

Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain ended the season with 36 goals to finish runner-up and in doing so broke Gunnar Nordahl’s 66-year record for most number of goals in a Serie A season.

Last seasons winner, Ronaldo, finished third with 35 goals.

Golden Shoe

Only the leading five countries in the UEFA rankings (England, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain) have two as their multiplayer. This is to emphasise the difference in performance level between clubs from those countries and those of other nations.


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When Higuaín left Real Madrid in 2013, many critics said that he was making the biggest mistake in his career, and that it was a step back in his football life. Well, I can guarantee that those critics must now be ashamed of those words. The Argentinian is, by now, the most likely player to win the European Golden Shoe (former European Golden Boot), having scored an astonishing total of 25 goals in 28 games so far this season.

We’ve got to admit it’s pretty impressive, and the striker does not seem to be showing any signs of faltering.. Despite his age – he recently turned 28-years-old -, Higuaín is showing that he was mistreated in Madrid, where he was only in the shadows of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It is clear that some may say that Real made a huge mistake in letting him go. I do agree, but Higuaín surely doesn’t: leaving the Bernabeu gave the talented striker a major boost in his career. And Napoli’ supporters are now immensely grateful to the former manager Rafael Benitez to have brought such a savior to the club.

Napoli have jumped to the top of the league, 2 points ahead of the current champions Juventus. Maurizio Sarri, Higuaín’s actual manager, said that he’s “becoming the best striker in Europe and perhaps in the world”. I couldn’t agree more: the Argentinian has awakened the interest of former UEFA Champions League winners, Bayern Munich.

The owner of the “Die Roten”, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, confirmed the German side’s pursuit of the Italian Serie A’s top scorer. Surely Napoli will not be willing to let their Nugget (translation of the Spanish term “Pipita”) go, now that he’s shining more than ever. But a fair offer (let’s say €75Million) would be very tempting. But let me be honest: if Zenit St. Petersburg are able to decline €90Million for Hulk, I don’t know what Higuain’s real price is. But that’s just my own opinion

Argentina’s National Team head coach, Gerardo Martino, now a real headache. When he can count on Messi, Dybala, Higuaín, Agüero and Tevez, to form the attacking trio (Argentina plays in a 4-3-3), the real trouble is which of those high-quality players will belong in the Starting 11.

In my opinion, I would rather see Messi, Dybala and Higuaín; they would be a fierce trident in Argentina’s attack. But we will have to wait to see if Higuaín is able to keep up with the high standards that he has accustomed Napoli’s supporters to.

In the Italian League, the striker is truly deadly: 23 goals in the same amount of matches. If he continues this level of form he will no doubt be one of the main candidates for the European Golden Shoe.

About the author – Luis Costa

Luis has a great passion for football and has been playing Soccer Manager for 5 years. He played semi-professional football for 13 years and is currently a regional referee in Madeira’s football association.


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In the eight days between Inter’s 4-0 victory over Frosinone last weekend and Monday night’s trip to Napoli, Roberto Mancini would have devoted much of his time to coming up with a strategy to stop Mauricio Sarri’s in-form outfit from scoring. After 65 seconds at the Stadio San Paolo, those plans lay in ruins.

It was an awful start from Inter, who fell behind almost instantly when Gonzalo Higuain clinically fired the ball past goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and into the back of the net. They struggled to create anything of note for the remainder of the first period, and things got even worse in the 44th minute when left-back Yuto Nagatomo was given his marching orders after being shown his second yellow card.

It was always going to be an extremely difficult task for the visitors from then on, but their spirited second-half showing will have given Mancini and the club’s fans hope that they are genuine title contenders this term. After Adem Ljajic pulled a goal back following Higuain’s second of the evening just after the hour-mark, Inter had had some excellent chances to grab an equaliser: Ljajic and Marcelo Brozovic could have made better decisions in promising positions, before substitute Stevan Jovetic and centre-back Joao Miranda both hit the post in injury time, with the latter’s header brilliantly pushed on to the woodwork by Pepe Reina.

In the end, Napoli were a little fortunate to escape with all three points, but the two-time Scudetto winners will simply be delighted that they hung on for the victory that sent them top of the Serie A table after 14 matches for the first time since 1989/90, the year in which they last won the league. Having begun the campaign looking to consolidate under new boss Sarri and, at best, launch a challenge for the Champions League places, Napoli are now many people’s favourites for the championship.

Higuain is a big reason for that tag, with his brace against Inter boosting his goal tally for the season to 12. No-one in the division has hit the back of the net more often than the Argentina international, whose display against Inter would have been all the more pleasing after some significant misses in big games for club and country in the last 18 months or so.

Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon have also impressed as part of an exciting front three, with Allan, Jorginho and captain Marek Hamsik – redeployed deeper in the pitch by Sarri – all thriving as part of a midfield trio in behind.

Further back, centre-halves Kalidou Koulibaly and Raul Albiol are both much-improved, with full-backs Faouzi Ghoulah and Elseid Hysaj also earning plaudits as part of a backline that has conceded only nine goals in the league, a record bettered by no other Serie A side. Their 26 goals scored, meanwhile, makes Napoli the third-most productive attackers in Italy’s top flight behind Roma and Fiorentina.

The signs, then, are increasingly positive for Sarri’s charges, who have taken 29 points from the last 33 on offer. If they maintain their current performance levels in the coming weeks, Napoli will be extremely difficult to knock off top spot.

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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With a cigarette in his mouth, he observes from afar. The 56-year-old is forever a student to the game, taking the utmost care in each step he takes. A recent report from the newspaper Il Mattino explained he spends up to 15 hours per day involved in football related work.

Aside from training his squad, he comes home to watch films of opponents, analyse and study tactics and seek how to improve his team.

He fully immerses himself in the sport, in a position he would do free he says.

Living just 5km from Napoli’s Castel Volturno training ground, Maurizio Sarri has given his all to improve a team he inherited that finished fifth, missing out on Champions League contention on the last day of the season. Furthermore, Napoli conceded 73 goals in all competitions last season so there was obvious work to be done.

While many neutrals expected a major re-haul of the squad to occur in the summer, Sarri acted swiftly to dismiss those claims. Just like the hardworking values he embodies, he described going out into the transfer market to purchase defenders would not be the solution.

Instead, Napoli’s troubled defence that has been their true weakness over the years would be bettered by hard work in training.

There’s no better figure to symbolise just how much Sarri has improved this side since just taking over in the summer than Kalidou Koulibaly. Arriving from Genk last season for €7 million, the centre-back fought off competition from Miguel Britos and Henrique for a starting spot alongside Raul Albiol.

Appearing as a diamond in the rough, the potential in Koulibaly was there for all to see last season, showing glimpses every so often of what a great defender he could become with proper nurture.

However, raw in his approach, lapses of concentration continually let down the Senegalese international last term. Indeed, he committed five defensive errors last season which was the most out of his teammates.

But in came Sarri and the 24-year-old – who was possibly going to leave the San Paolo this past summer –has transformed under the ex-Empoli coache’s watch and Napoli are now reaping the benefits.

Operating at left centre-back, Koulibaly hunts down opponents, not affording a single inch of space. While he was caught out on a number of times when venturing too far forward last season under Rafael Benitez, the former Genk man adheres to a patient, timed approach that Sarri has instilled in him.

Koulibaly appears more focused and confident on the ball this season for the Partenopei, a stark contrast from his playing days under Rafa. Excelling in sharp passes with both feet, his great vision and calmness in possession has been effective in helping rotate the ball and start the attack.

Indeed, Koulibaly has completed the most passes in the Europa League this season, 295. He also produced a phenomenal assist to Jose Callejon in his club’s 5-1 victory against Midtjylland, firing a ball from his own half in which the Spaniard caught on the volley.

Additionally, Sarri has helped the Senegalese international improve his positioning with use a drone deployed in training. Last season, the 24-year-old was not disciplined enough during the course of an entire match, leaving his marker completely free a few times per game.

However, that’s very much changed for the physical defender, sticking closer to his opponent and providing much needed security in the back for the Neapolitans.

Simply put, Koulibaly has gone from a good prospect to one of the best centre-backs in the league. Given the nickname K2 – an abbreviation for the second tallest mountain in the world – Koulibaly does well to exemplify the comparison, standing at 6’5” and not affording opponents a chance to get past him.

The results have backed up Koulibaly’s improvement in form, with the Partenopei conceding just three times in their last 13 matches. The club can also boast the second best defensive record in the peninsula, letting in eight goals this term.

Napoli are flying high at the moment both in Serie A and the Europa League; Koulibay’s form under Sarri has given the club the solidity to genuinely compete on dual fronts this season.

About the author – Matthew Amalfitano

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.

twitter: _MattFootball


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He’s not very fast. He’s not great in the tackle. He’s not the most physical.

But Jorginho is the heart of Napoli’s midfield at the moment, and his excellent performances have given the club a lift to fight for Italy’s top places.

The Brazilian-born Italian arrived in Naples from Verona in January of 2014 and quickly impressed under then-manager Rafael Benitez, eventually beating out Valon Behrami for a starting spot and guiding the Partenopei to a third-place finish.

However, the positive tides would soon turn. Low on confidence and lacking the proper focus, his first full season with Napoli was one to forget.

But it might have been more to due with the regista’s partners in the double pivot. The club failed to properly reinforce their midfield two summers ago and were left with a regressing Gokhan Inler, a mediocre Walter Gargano returning from his Parma loan and new arrival David Lopez, who was seen as player that did not help the club make the jump in quality.

The lack of quality personnel coupled with reduced minutes and low confidence for Jorginho resulted in not so great performances from the 23-year-old.

After holding down third place in the second half of the season, the club fell to fifth place on the final day of the campaign and Benitez left Naples’ shores for the Spanish capital. The player’s agent was recently quoted as saying that if Rafa would’ve stayed, Jorginho would’ve left the club, while also mentioning four Italian clubs were interested in the regista’s services.

However, a new coach and system were then brought to Campania and one of Maurizio Sarri’s preferences was utilising three in midfield, the same type of setup used by Verona that really catered to and showcased Jorginho’s style and skill.

Operating in the heart of midfield, every attack flows through the 23-year-old as Jorginho sets the rhythm of his side. Vocal and always moving into space to receive the ball, the midfielder commands his teammates going forward; his effortless coolness on the ball allows Napoli to play out of situations without panicking and cheaply giving away possession.

Astonishingly, the regista completed 213 out of 222 passes between appearances against Club Brugge and Lazio, demonstrating his ability and fine precision on the ball.

Looking to his form in Serie A, Jorginho has averaged 90% passing accuracy, which is the best return out of his teammates. Remarkably, the club has won every match that he has started in. A correlation between the two? We’d like to think so.

In their past six matches in all competitions since changing from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-3-3 setup, the club have scored 18 goals and conceded just once.

Jorginho will once again have captain Marek Hamsik and Allan along either side of him, with the trio having formed a solid unit this season. The latter does all the dirty work and protects the playmaker while Hamsik tucks into advanced positions upfield and feeds the Partenopei’s attacking line.

If Jorginho’s good form continues, he might be able to attract the eye of Italian national team coach Antonio Conte. Jorginho became eligible for the Azzurri after years of living in the peninsula and completed his Italian citizenship last year. The 23-year-old could be a key player in Italy’s march to Euro 2016 and possibly towards helping lift the trophy in France.

For now, though, Jorginho holds the keys to Napoli’s midfield and their hopes of finishing in Champions League’s territory this season.

About the author – Matthew Amalfitano

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.

twitter: _MattFootball


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New Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri did not go down the usual route of making it to the top level of football management by being an ex-footballer. A bank manager until 2002, the 56-year-old brought his Empoli side to Serie A last season, making his managing debut in Italy’s top-flight.

Sticking by his 4-3-1-2, which demands the use of a trequartista to bring life to the attack, Empoli played some of the best football in Serie A. And with many predicting relegation, the Tuscan side finished in 15th.

With Rafael Benitez choosing not to stay in Naples, president Aurelio De Laurentiis was in need of a coach. To much surprise across the peninsula, Sarri was brought in 11 days after the Serie A campaign ended and he implemented a 4-3-1-2 right off the bat for the Neapolitans.

Given the number of wide attackers in Napoli’s squad, this formation was quickly met with criticism after the first string of disappointing league play results.

For one, Jose Callejon’s new role was that of a support striker. Not in a position to make his characteristically effective darting runs behind the defence, the former Real Madrid man looked like a fish out of water.

More importantly, given the 4-3-1-2 setup, the look of the squad was extremely narrow. While the Partenopei had no problem finding the net, with Lorenzo Insigne dazzling as a trequartista, Napoli allowed heaps of space on both flanks for opponents to come barreling down, which resulted in six goals being conceded in the first three matches.

With just two points picked up after three rounds of play, fans were at wits’ end with the provincial manager. Even club legend Diego Maradona spoke out about the situation, predicting that Napoli wouldn’t win anything under the former Empoli tactician.

While President Aurelio De Laurentiis publicly backed the new coach, rumours began to spread that Sarri’s last game to prove his worth would be in round seven against Juventus. Knowing a change was needed, Sarri analysed the situation and called upon a 4-3-3 for his men.

One of Benitez’s criticisms during his time in Naples was his stubbornness to be flexible with tactical setups, as his 4-2-3-1 came to be predictable for opponents to line up against. However, Sarri being as tactically astute as they come, allowed the 4-3-3 to be tested in the club’s opening Europa League clash against Club Brugge.

Simply put, the new formation has improved results.

Napoli hit three goals in 25 minutes and finished the match with a 5-0 scoreline. While the strength of the club’s deadly attack saw no changes, the defence looked much more organized given the shape of the formation.

Although some sneered at the level of the opponent at the San Paolo last Thursday night, a real test would come three days later against Lazio. The Aquile defeated the Partenopei on the final matchday of last season to earn a Champions League playoff spot. With a handful Lazio regulars missing through injury, Napoli did not hold back.

Astonishingly, another 5-0 outcome followed.

In one of the best revenge matches one will ever witness, Napoli’s 4-3-3 provided the right balance both offensively and defensively.

Full-backs Elseid Hysaj and Faouzi Ghoulam snuffed out attacks and regularly got upfield to play a key role to the side’s attacking phase.

As a regista in midfield, Jorginho set the rhythm of the match with each delicate pass. In fact, he managed to complete 213 out of 222 passes between the past two 5-0 results. The width of the defence and midfield helped the club keep possession and better line up against counterattacks.

Lorenzo Insigne commanded down the left wing and brought fans’ to the edge of their seats when he received the ball.

While the Partenopei did hit a recent snag against Capri by tying 0-0, they did manage to keep a clean sheet, which was their third in a row. A rare feat for the club last season, Sarri’s change in system has implemented better defensive coverage.

The chances were there for Gonzalo Higuain and Manolo Gabbiadini to snag a goal, but the pair couldn’t convert.

All in all, the side look much more balanced with a 4-3-3. The Neapolitans welcome Juventus this weekend which should ignite an electric atmosphere at the San Paolo.

With a 4-3-3 approach for Napoli, Sarri has the ability of leading the club to winning ways once again.

About the author – Matthew Amalfitano

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.

twitter: _MattFootball



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With the score level at 2-2, the ball was placed on the spot and fans huddled in together, holding their breath.

What happened next would shape Napoli’s future, granting them either Champions League or Europa League football and individually, had the possibility of exalting Gonzalo Higuain to something of a higher figure in the crazed footballing city of Naples, Italy.

But it wasn’t to be.

The 27-year-old sent his penalty over the bar in the 76th minute against Lazio and San Paolo’s punters fell back into their seats, shocked by what they had just witnessed. Stefano Pioli’s side would go on to convert two more chances, crushing Napoli’s Champions League dreams from what would’ve been an amazing comeback.

Of course in the aftermath of that glaring penalty miss, no one will remember el Pipita’s brace in the space of nine minutes that brought the Partenopei level. Out of that miss, which was his third effort saved out of six total last season, was born another demon, another nightmare in the mind of the former Real Madrid man.

If Higuain had the possibility of waving a wand to completely wipe his memory from July 2014 to July 2015, he’d do it in a heartbeat.

Although the forward scored 29 goals in all competitions for Napoli last season and two match-winners for Argentina between the World Cup and Copa America, Higuain most importantly, failed to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments of the past year.

It first started in the World Cup final when the forward was gifted an incredible chance from a headed back-pass from Toni Kroos that sent the Argentine one-on-one with Manuel Neuer. But the 27-year-old hurried his wind-up and scuffed the shot, firing it wide left.

Looking past his crucial domestic saved penalties, previously coming from matches where the club failed to win, Higuain had a date in the Copa America final against host nation Chile.

With the match in its final minute of added time, Lionel Messi burst through the centre of the pitch, beating two defenders before finding Ezequiel Lavezzi in space. The 30-year-old played a squared ball to an oncoming Higuain at the far post, but the forward only managed to hit the side netting in the dying seconds of the final that could have own the match.

Higuain then had a chance to right his wrongs in the penalty shoot-out, being chosen as the second kicker after Messi. But this time again, Pipita skied his effort over the bar.

Turning the clock back to the beginning of last season, it must be said that Higuain endured a heavy World Cup hangover, with the forward failing to score in the first seven Serie A matches of the season.

Flailing his arms outwards in frustration with his teammates was a common sight for the former River Plate marksman and his actions portrayed a thoroughly annoyed figure on the pitch.

Napoli’s new coach Maurizio Sarri noticed it as well. When asked about the Argentine this past summer, the 56-year-old responded, “Higuain can improve, lately when I’ve seen him he’s looked too nervous, if he played with a smile he could do more.

“He has to go out there and have fun. Whoever smiles and has fun on the pitch always wins in the long run.”

It felt like salt in the wounds for Napoli supporters when the Biancocelesti failed to reach the Champions League group stages after falling to Bayer Leverkusen in the play-off, so the atmosphere at San Paolo will be even more charged for a revenge match.

And when asked about the tasty fixture, Pioli understands that their last encounter bears no connection to this weekend’s clash, stating, “The 4-2 result in May was a wonderful night full of emotions, but that is the past and tomorrow is our present.”

Although a goal for Higuain against Lazio this weekend won’t help Neapolitans forget what could have been on the final matchday of last season, it will certainly aid in easing the pain.

With two goals to his name so far this term, Higuain is hoping his third arrives this weekend to help to extinguish the demons of his past that have haunted him for so long.

About the author – Matthew Amalfitano

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.

twitter: _MattFootball


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