As we approach the new year, it's time to take a look at where things stand and where we hope they end in a few months.
Last season Napoli entered the break on 36 points, same as they have now, but had played one more round of matches. Currently, they sit in third, five points behind still unbeaten Roma, and 10 points behind strong favorites Juventus. It's worth noting that Juve have two more points at the break than they did a year ago (on one less match) and their point total of a year ago surpassed that their unbeaten season in 2011-2012. This doesn't mean I'm conceding that Napoli's chances of their first Scudetto since 1990 have gone to the wind, it just means it will be an uphill battle.
The schedule certainly favors Napoli in the second half of the season, as they've played in Florence, Turin, Rome (twice), and Milan (once). Juve and Roma meet for the first time immediately following the break, and both have more top of the table matches on the road than Napoli the rest of the way. For Napoli to close the gap with the top, they must use the home field advantage of the San Paolo to keep some separation with the other top half sides, and pile on the points to put pressure on Roma and Juve ahead of them.
- Trounce the minnows: no more drab 1-1 draws with the likes of Cagliari and Sassuolo.
- Beat Juve and Roma in Naples.
- Hope that Juve runs into some bad form and drops points against some of the minnows.
Europa League Prospects
De Laurentiis has openly stated his disdain for Europe's second tier competition, but I don't think that means Napoli should mail it in like they did last year. For a club trying to assert itself as a potential European power, and perennial European presence, it makes no sense for them to pass on any European experience. They open with a potentially tough challenge in the form of Swansea, and look likely to collide with Porto in the round of 16.
Napoli could use more international exposure, and the team could use more mid-week European experience. Ultimately, much depends on the depth of the squad. I'd love to see them succeed and advance deep in the tournament with a legitimate chance to win the whole thing. However, if that means that their Serie A form suffers and they end the season in 5th like they did a few years ago, then no thanks.
Any kind of Europa league challenge depends on squad depth. If they have the depth (especially at the back) to provide players with ample rest to keep them fresh for the important weekend matches then why not take a chance at their first European trophy since the victory over Stuttgart in 1989?
- Give it a go. Why not? Serie A needs all of it's teams to succeed in European play for those all important coefficient points. Napoli could use the silverware, an increased club coefficient to avoid future Groups of Death in the CL, and could use Europa League success as a spring board for future European success ala Athletico Madrid.
- Meet Juve in Turin in the finals, and win. I know it's a pipe dream, but beating Juve in a championship game in Turin would make the Europa league that much sweeter. I'm sure even De Laurentiis would agree that a victory of Juve would significantly increase the meaning of the trophy.
Much has already been written about the upcoming transfer window and it's importance for the second half of the season but it's worth reiterating: Napoli needs defenders and midfield depth. Conceding three goals against the "offensive juggernaut" of Udinese without Di Natale is totally unacceptable. Our Swiss trio have demonstrated that they can play very well on occasion but they've been too inconsistent this season, and it's been a mixed bag as to which side of each player shows up.
As to available funds: this past summer De Laurentiis had set a budget of €60 million. After the sale of Cavani, he reinvested that entire amount back into the transfer budget leaving about €120 million. After the €87 million spent in the summer, that leaves a theoretical budget of €33 million, which should be plenty to make a handful of smart purchases to sure up the back and buy some defensively minded midfielders who can shield our defense better.
- Buy some defenders
- Buy some defensive midfielders
- Have I mentioned they need more help in defense?
Other hopes and dreams for the New Year
Napoli should be able to catch Roma in second, and with some good fortune, they might be able to put some pressure on Juve at the top. Realistically, Napoli's designs on any kind of silverware this year depend on this transfer window. If they stand pat, then Napoli could certainly be looking at a Champions League playoff, or worse. If they buy the right mix of defensive players and midfielders, they could reassert themselves as championship contenders, Europa title hopefuls, and even make a run at the Coppa.
Although the New Year doesn't come with a clean slate like August does, all disappointments they've encountered so far (the few awful draws at home, any time Canavarro walked on the pitch, being ousted after accumulating 12 points in the CL) are now in the past. The hope of a successful season is still within reach; almost more importantly however is that Rafa and Co. are certainly building something special for the future.