Making their Champions League debut, Napoli’s first test against the free scoring Manchester City was impressive enough to suggest they will not be the group’s whipping boys as initially expected. A day earlier, AC Milan proudly flied the Serie A flag as they earned a draw at the Camp Nou against European champions Barcelona with a typically cunning Italian display. Napoli’s performance at Eastlands hoisted it even higher after a similarly effective show.
Making their return to Europe’s elite after 21 years, the Partenopei seemed fearless facing a side boasting supreme talents such as Samir Nasri, David Silva and the son-in-law of Napoli legend Diego Maradona, Sergio Aguero. In the early stages, Napoli played a very Italian style game as they sat back and waited for the opportune moments to blitz forward on the counter attack. As the match progressed, they grew into their own and took the game to the English side. It was a sound game plan and one that on another day could have earned them an even better result. Walter Mazzari, no doubt, would have been elated with a point. Yet, his comments following the match evidenced his disappointment that his side did not get a second goal as he was quoted, “There are regrets, as we probably deserved a second goal.”
Compared to the pre-match gloom which surrounded the Italian clubs, especially Napoli given their greenness among the top teams in Europe, Mazzari’s words bare not only some truth but also a window into the mettle that has been instilled in this Neapolitan side. Mettle, that perhaps explains how this club has risen from the remoteness of Serie C1 to Europe’s premier competition in just seven years. Such an attitude could help the club to unlikely achievements this term.
Napoli’s performance was perhaps the best of all the Italian sides. Milan were completely outplayed by Barcelona for practically the entire match while the less said about Inter the better after their shocking and dismal home loss to Turkish minnows, Trabsonapar. The Milan clubs boast experience in abundance and while it served the Rossoneri well, Napoli’s almost complete lack of experience at this level may work in their favour. Few expect them to progress past the group stages or even attain qualification to the Europa League. After Wednesday night’s display, many may be reassessing such predictions. Nevertheless, this lack of expectation has perhaps relieved the Neapolitan side of much of the pressure that is being weighed down on Inter and Milan.
Particularly difficult encounters are still ahead for Mazzari’s men with double headers against Bayern Munich and Villareal and a return fixture in Napoli against City. Bayern’s experience, quality and opening day away win against Villarreal suggests that the Germans could be the biggest test for Napoli. However, the yellow submarines have not had a great start to their season and their play has indicated that they are lacking the quality of previous teams. Meanwhile, Mazzari’s side have enjoyed a stellar start to the new season with two consecutive 3-1 victories, including one against Italian champions Milan. If in the following months they can show the grit, tactical flexibility and sharp incisive counter attacking football that they did at Etihad stadium, displayed by Mazzari’s side.
Certainly, after their opening matchday result, the Partenopei will have the belief that they can progress past the group stages and, perhaps, become the real darkhorse of the competition.
The question lies as to whether Mazzari can master the art of the rotation in order for the team to establish a sense of equilibrium in the challenges they face in both the league and the Champions League.
The club has been handsomely backed by President Aurelio De Laurenitiis, who despite his outspoken and eccentric mannerisms has helped propel his home town club from almost extinction and complete obscurity to the top stage of Italian and European football. How far they can go remains to be seen. On early evidence the glory days might just have returned to the San Paolo.