Napoli’s sluggish start to the season continued with a bland 0-0 draw at home to Dutch side FC Utrecht in the first match of the Europa League group stages. This follows a fortunate draw on the opening day of the Serie A season against Fiorentina, and a disappointing stalemate with Bari last weekend. With three draws from their first three matches, Walter Mazzarri’s team have not exactly got off to a flying start as last campaign’s sixth-placed finish suggested. Nonetheless, the buzz around the Stadio San Paolo for the past few days has clearly shown the club’s excitement at being involved in European competition again. Captain Paolo Cannavaro said: “We will try and go forward, getting out of the group. It won’t be easy, but Napoli are an ambitious team who always have the desire to surprise. We’ll try, we can do it.”
The skipper can still recall Napoli winning the UEFA Cup in 1989, with victory over Stuttgart. “I was a little boy, but I remember everything clearly. It was a long and thrilling evening. We were all at home to watch the game. It was like a party that never ended. Good times.” Edinson Cavani also spoke out after Napoli’s draw with Bari, about the upcoming Europa League match. “We had the victory in our hands,” he said, before calling attention to the importance of the match against Utrecht. Of course, things were far from having reached a critical stage at that point but there was a clear recognition, transpiring from his words, that getting off on the right foot was extremely crucial. As for Mazzarri – busy juggling both Serie A and Europa League matches in his schedule – he opted to make several changes to reinvigorate his team on Thursday evening against Utrecht. Morgan De Sanctis remained in goal, and Cannavaro was still positioned at the heart of the defence, albeit in close partnership with Fabiano Santacroce and Salvatore Aronica, instead of Gianluca Grava and Hugo Campagnaro. Walter Gargano and Andrea Dossena kept their places in midfield, whereas Christian Maggio and Michele Pazienza were rested in favour of Camilo Zuniga and debutant Hassan Yebda. Mazzarri’s usual playmaker, Marek Hamsik, was left on the bench to give new signing Jose Sosa the chance to supply Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi.
Napoli can probably lay claim to having been the better side last Thursday. However, their dominance counted for little as they were unable to break down a rigid Utrecht. Cavani, who has started his Napoli career with a flurry of goals, was as dangerous as ever and a constant thorn to the Dutch visitors, despite the unenviable fact of having been denied several times. Maggio – for once not a mere substitute – missed the best chance of the game, following a goalmouth scramble, when Lavezzi sent a teasing cross across the six-yard line in the last minute which neither Cavani nor Cannavaro could turn home. Mazzarri introduced Hamsik in the second half, as well as burly striker Cristiano Lucarelli, with neither of them able to make the difference on a hugely frustrating night at the San Paolo. Elsewhere in Napoli’s group, Liverpool defeated Steaua Bucharest. Napoli must visit the Romanian capital club in their next European encounter, although, no doubt, Mazzarri’s immediate attention will turn to facing his former club at the weekend. Napoli are to travel to Sampdoria to try and register their first league win of the season, against the club whom Mazzarri gained his previous Europa League experience with as Coach.
Despite two disappointing draws against Bari and Utrecht, there was better news emerging from the San Paolo this week. The contract dispute threatening Cannavaro’s rapport with the club is almost at an end. The captain’s current deal – due to expire shortly – had seen negotiations on a possible extension stalling over an apparent financial disagreement. President Aurelio De Laurentiis had previously stated: “Paolo has another year left on his existing deal and he must respect it. Then, if he wants to go and join his brother in Dubai, I will be more than happy to let him.” De Laurentiis’ hard-line approach has somewhat softened now, as if in recognition of Cannavaro’s importance to the team and his cult status amongst the fans. Even he admitted the player seems to epitomise the Neapolitan character to a tee by recently describing him as “all heart and passion”.
Cannavaro is set to resume contract talks with De Laurentiis in the near future, although the focus will immediately turn to Walter Mazzarri again this weekend. The Napoli Coach, charged with earning his side their first win of the Serie A season, returns to his old stomping ground at Sampdoria, in what should be a fascinating encounter.