Forza Napoli!

How the underwhelming team from Naples has become Europe’s best.

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It was the summer of 2022 and the Italian soccer club, Napoli, had a major problem on their hands. Following another uninspiring season that left them third in the Serie A (Italy’s premier league division) and knocked out from Europe in their own stadium after a 4-2 defeat against Barcelona during the Europa League playoffs, it only seemed a matter of time before enough was enough for most of the club’s talented players.

Amongst the first to go, to every Neapolitan’s surprise, was captain winger Lorenzo Insigne, who left for a new adventure in North America to play for the Major League Soccer team, Toronto FC. Insigne had played for Napoli since he was 15 years old in their academy, and his departure foreshadowed the diaspora that was to come as striker Dries Mertens, Napoli’s all-time top scorer, and other veterans such as goalkeeper David Ospina, defender Kalidou Koulibaly, midfielder Fabián Ruiz, and striker Arkadiusz Milik soon followed him out the door. For any team’s future, this immense clear-out of talent and experience in such a short time would be worrying, if not downright crippling, so there was no surprise when most Serie A fans immediately disregarded the chances of the historic Neapolitan team becoming Italian champions. Or so they thought.

In actuality, the season Napoli has had is nothing short of spectacular. “Gli Azzurri” currently sits on top of the Serie A table with an 18-point cushion over second-place Inter Milan, who were once thought as major favorites for the title. Furthermore, the Neapolitans boast the best defense in the league: they have only conceded 16 goals so far, and the 58 goals they have scored mean their attack is the sharpest in Italy’s first division. This dazzling form has translated into their European campaign, as they topped their UEFA Champions League group with historic 4-1 and 6-1 drubbings on big-franchise teams Liverpool and Ajax along the way.

“Napoli don’t play like an Italian team. They play with the most intensity by some distance. They’re aggressive without the ball…They have an incredible balance and don’t concede many goals.” Those were the words of Eintracht Frankfurt manager Oliver Glasner, who could not have been more correct after his own side was beaten by the Italian winning machine 2-0 in their Champions League round of 16 matchup. Indeed, after a frustrating tenure under the feisty manager Gennaro Gattuso, “Gli Azzurri” managed to revolutionize themselves with the appointment of Luciano Spalletti. With Spalletti’s style of play, the Neapolitan team is fluid and more dynamic than ever, seeming to have the ability to overcome any opposition they face with their intense and energized approach to the game. 

Of course, none of these brilliant tactics would be carried out without the magnificent crop of talent Napoli has at its disposal. Since the major departures of Insigne, Ruiz, and Koulibaly, the club’s sporting department headed by director Cristiano Giuntoli has done exceptionally well to secure the deals of their replacements, even at bargain prices. For example, Korean center-back Kim Min-jae and Cameroonian midfielder André-Frank Anguissa were brought in for a combined fee of just €33 million, and both have grown to be key assets to the current roster.

Still, Napoli’s jewel in the crown goes by the name of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, a 22-year-old talent unearthed from the depths of the Georgian leagues for €10 million, now tearing through European defenses with ease. Currently, the winger has scored 12 goals in all competitions and leads the Serie A assist charts with nine assists, all of which has earned him the nickname “Kvaradona” by the Napoli faithful in reference to club legend Diego Maradona.

Yet the most devastating attribute Kvicha possesses may be his frighteningly strong partnership with Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen, who has also blown up as one of the best in the world under Spaletti’s watch. Together, the attacking duo has contributed to over half of the total goals netted by Napoli this season. Combine these astounding performances with the resurgences of other talents such as captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo, attacking midfielder Piotr Zieliński, and winger Hirving Lozano, all topped with Spalletti’s attacking mindset, and you have a team that is currently the best in all of Europe.

That said, there are still three months until European soccer seasons conclude, and Napoli has become notorious for their ability to capitulate after massive leads in both domestic and continental competitions. However, the form the Italian club has demonstrated, as well as their almost-perfect qualities as a team, has led many to conclude already that this year may finally be the one where the “Gli Azzurri” seize the Serie A title and make a glorious run in Europe for the first time in over three decades.