Napoli Are Europe's Best Team This Season. Will They End Italy's Drought In Champions League?
Napoli Is Europe’s Best Team This Season. Will They End Italy’s Drought In Champions League?

Napoli had never been through the Round of 16 in this competition

On a night when the streets in Naples turned ugly, with cars being set ablaze, flares being thrown recklessly at fans, and riot police gearing up to control the violence that seemed going out of control with every minute, it was Napoli FC, the pride of the city, that offered a wonderful distraction, putting up a dominating show against the Eintracht Frankfurt to thrash them by 3-0 (5-0 on aggregate). 


They are now in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. This is a statement you wouldn’t have seen it coming when the season started. Napoli has never been through the Round of 16 in this competition, and there’s no way they were going to better that in a season where they have offloaded some of their biggest names. 


Dries Mertens, the club’s leading goal-scorer in the Serie A, wasn’t given a contract extension. Kalidou Koulibaly, one of the best defenders in Europe at that time, couldn’t resist a lucrative contract from Chelsea. Fabian Ruiz, the heart of their midfield, too packed his bag when Paris came calling. Age caught up with the club’s heartthrob Lorenzo Insigne.


Now the question: How do you deal with so many major absences? That too if you’re a club called Napoli owned by a manager who is astute but very pragmatic when it comes to financing. No, you can’t blame Aurelio De Laurentiis. If not for him taking over the club when they were drowned in the sea of bankruptcy, you would most probably be reading about Napoli in your history book. 


The conventional wisdom, the way modern football works, definitely offers a solution, and that is to go and take a dip into the transfer market, just assemble all the expensive human commodities, and somehow things will work out. That route, though, often leads to self-annihilation, especially for a club that doesn’t possess the financial muscle to afford failures of their multiple star-signing.



Napoli, of course, couldn’t walk on this path of potential self-immolation. They decided they will take a route that is antithetical to our current understanding of how an elite football club is built. They brought an obscure footballer from a Georgian town on the bank of the Black Sea for just €10 million. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. They now call him ‘Kvaradona’. Not because his playing style is similar to the late Diego Maradona. Not because he resembles Maradona. It’s just that Kvaratskhelia’s effect at the club closely reminds the fans of this club of Mardona, the way he came and changed the destiny of the club. 


They also got the Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen at a cheap price, and his striking partnership with Kvaratskhelia has been working wonders for the club. The dazzling duo has been at the forefront of the club’s resurgence, and it’s shame we yet don’t have the portmanteau for them. Vicelia is what I propose. Or Osimkhelia works too. 


While these two have obviously shone the brightest, it’s important to not underestimate the rest of the members of the squad. Kim Min-jae and Mathías Olivera have been rock solid at the back, Eljif Elmas has also been a revelation, and the supporting cast of Chucky Lozano, Giovanni Simeone, and Giacomo Raspadori.



All of them have bought the philosophy of Luciano Spalletti, the coach who is accused of not smiling enough even though his team is close to clinching their first Serie A title in over three decades. Spalletti is silently putting up a masterclass in making a team play in a way that goes against the current tactical zeitgeist. The domination of structured football, pioneered by men like Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri, doesn’t inspire him. Spalletti’s biggest achievement, so far, is in showing the world that there’s no one way to play perfect football. 


“Systems no longer exist in football, it’s all about the spaces left by the opposition,” said Spalletti. “You must be quick to spot them and know the right moment to strike, have the courage to start the move even when pressed.”



With 12 games remaining in the league, Napoli are sitting at the top, 18 points clear of their closest rival Inter Milan. Often ridiculed for blowing up the lead in crunch moments, this season looks different. Moreover, they also look like the team that is most likely going to end up an Italian drought in the Champions League. 

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