As dark horses go, there are few darker than Napoli. Last season they finished a respectable 6th, 23 points short of Champions Inter. Their start to the 2010-11 season was a long way short of scintillating and included draws against Fiorentina and Bari as well as a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Chievo. It was not until the start of October they really kicked into gear. A 2-0 victory over Roma showed signs of things to come with the Azzurri basing their quick, incisive attacking football on the foundations of a solid defence.
During the summer, minimal changes had been made to the squad with Coach Walter Mazzarri seemingly happy that the players he possessed were up to the task of bettering 6th place. The only major signing was Edinson Cavani from Palermo. The Uruguayan was signed to provide Mazzarri with another attacking option but became an automatic starter when Fabio Quagliarella defected to Juventus at the end of August and turned out to be arguably the signing of the season.
In his first three league games Cavani scored three times and followed this up by coming off the bench against Cesena to play a major part in turning a 1-0 deficit into a 4-1 victory, assisting the equaliser and scoring twice himself. Over the course of the season Cavani’s goals would prove crucial to Napoli as the strove to keep pace with Milan at the top of the league. The forward ended the campaign with 26 goals to his name, just two short of Antonio Di Natale at the top of the goal scoring charts, and almost half of Napoli’s goals for the season.
However, despite his huge contribution, Cavani was not Napoli’s only key man this season. In fact, the title challenge that Mazzarri’s team maintained so impressively for much of the season was built around a core of players that very rarely changed. Eight first team players started 30 or more games this season and make up much of the backbone of the team. This continuity was partly made possible by the almost miraculous lack of injuries throughout the Napoli squad that allowed the first team to stay unchanged so regularly. The side did suffer the occasional setback, though, with defensive stalwart Gianluca Grava restricted to only 12 appearances all season by injury.
Wary of the danger of fatigue, Mazzarri strengthened his side in January with the signings of Giuseppe Mascara and the highly rated Victor Ruiz. While neither have broken into the first team, Mascara’s ten appearances from the substitutes bench illustrate how he was used in order to avoid overworking the star front three of Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik.
While the Scudetto dream was fatally wounded by Milan in February, the Azzurri fought on valiantly until the title became a mathematical impossibility but will certainly not be disappointed with a third placed finish and a return to the Champions League next season. Recently Mazzarri put to bed rumours regarding a move to Juventus by saying he intended to remain with the Azzurri next season and the club have made their intentions clear by tying Edinson Cavani down to a long term contract, a move which they hope will convince the likes of Hamsik to remain despite interest from elsewhere. While only time will tell whether this season was a one-off for Napoli, it has certainly been a most entertaining of campaigns and one that fans hope will be improved upon next season.
Coach – Walter Mazzarri: The Napoli Coach has wildly outperformed expectations in his second season at the club and has shown how effective a brand of quick, attractive, attacking football can be when the right personnel are acquired. The signing of Edinson Cavani was a masterstroke.
Player of the season – Edinson Cavani: Quite simply phenomenal. The Uruguayan arrived from Palermo with a reputation for blowing hot and cold but has blown blistering hot all season. His 26 goals, including numerous vital winners in big games, are the reason that Napoli were able to keep up their unlikely challenge for as long as they did.
Turning point – Milan 3-0 Napoli, 28/02/2011: The point in the season when the title was lost and won. Milan proved simply too much for Napoli, who were unable to make any attacking impression on the game. The effects of this confidence-sapping defeat were apparent in the following games. Napoli struggled to overcome weaker opponents who they were brushing aside earlier in the season.
Average starting XI: