When Napoli beat Bologna 3-0 last May, they celebrated like they'd just won the scudetto. Bright blue wigs, pantless photos, popped champagne bottles -- all were in evidence, and all were captioned "The CHAAAAAAAAAAAAMPIIIIIIIIIOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONS". In a world full of jaded multimillionaires reading from a script and celebrating through carefully choreographed displays, the way that the Napoli players posted photos on instagram and Twitter made it clear the joy they felt at a second place finish was genuine.
Five months later and it's finally time for the Champions League group stage to kick off. If Napoli's excitement faltered at all upon learning they were drawn in the Group of Death, the players haven't shown it. Still, Arsenal, Olympique Marseille and Borussia Dortmund aren't exactly the easiest of opponents. And kicking off against last season's runners-up has to be a bit unnerving. Will the partenopei be able to get a result at the San Paolo?
I've watched a few BVB matches this season, but none with my full attention, having to cover other games at the same time. So I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on Dortmund. Instead, I consulted Bundesliga editor Phillip Quinn, asking what Napoli might expect on Wednesday night:
It's remarkable that you can sell one of the best young players in world football like Mario Götze for only €37 million and improve the way that Borussia Dortmund did this summer. Jürgen Klopp beat several other clubs to the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan and provided BVB with even more depth in the attacking midfield positions than they had last season. For the second season running, their biggest issue remains depth up top. Robert Lewandowski is one of the best in the world at his position, but BVB have a whole bunch of nothing behind him. However, if there's one thing you need to know about Borussia Dortmund, it's this: İlkay Gündoğan is secretly (It shouldn't be a secret any longer) one of the best midfielders in world football. He's currently absent from the side while he deals with a back injury, so it's tantamount that BVB start the Champions League off on the right foot. With captain Sebastian Kehl out now with an ankle injury, Nuri Şahin will get the start in the center of midfield with Sven Bender. It's still a talented enough side to earn a point or three on the road in Europe so expect a fun match.
And, of course, you all know the stats: Dortmund are top of the Bundesliga table, with five wins from five matches. They've conceded just four goals while putting in fifteen of their own -- with six of those coming this weekend against Hamburg. The visitors pulled the score to a level 2-2 at the start of the second half, and BVB punished them by putting in another four. Yikes.
So we come to Napoli. Napoli, who are also perfect in their league, although Serie A has played just three rounds thus far. The partenopei have also yet to face serious competition. Bologna looked like a Serie B side in the first round. Chievo Verona went to pieces when Napoli piled on the pressure in the second half. If it weren't for Andrea Consigli, Atalanta would've been beaten by Napoli's B side.
It's a bit distressing that Napoli's first big match is a Champions League game, as we've yet to see what Rafa Benítez can do when his side is stuck chasing the game. Sure, Napoli were unable to really break through against Atalanta on Saturday, but all that required of Rafa was the introduction of Marek Hamšík and José Callejón. What will we see if the best men are already on the pitch, and Dortmund are controlling the match?
There's been plenty of chatter about how successful Benítez has been in Europe, but it's been nearly ten years since his last real success -- and no, leading Chelsea to Europa Cup glory does not count. The footballing world has changed since Liverpool came from behind to beat AC Milan on penalties. We can only hope that Rafa himself has adapted, and knows how to get such a result from his current players.
Fortunately, nothing we've seen from Napoli thus far this season would lead us to believe that the side are ill-prepared to take on one of Europe's top clubs. Benítez has the side playing a more possession oriented game, rather than the straight counterattacking style favored by Walter Mazzarri. He's also somehow managed to get the team to gel, despite the fact that only half the players starting under Rafa were regularly playing together under Mazzarri.
Callejón, Gonzalo Higuaín and Pepe Reina are all newcomers to the partenopei. Reina has caused the heart to stop a couple times, but it's nothing Napoli supporters weren't used to when Morgan De Sanctis was between the sticks. Higuaín didn't look particularly impressive in the preseason or on his debut, but has since scored twice and appears to be connecting well with the trio playing behind him. Callejón is perhaps the most pleasant surprise, having scored three goals in three matches, and already seeming to have formed a bond with Hamšík.
Benítez has also integrated Lorenzo Insigne into the squad, something rarely done last season due to Mazzarri's inherent fear of players under age 25. Illustrious has certainly demonstrated, through tricky footwork and by troubling opposing defenders, that he deserves the start over Goran Pandev, and hopefully Rafa keeps his wits about him and puts him in from the beginning.
And, of course, there's Hamšík. A regular under Mazzarri, the Slovak could've been exposed as merely adequate when first Ezequiel Lavezzi and then Edinson Cavani left for Paris Saint-Germain. Instead, Hamšík stepped out of the shadows last season and has been nothing short of spectacular since this one began. He's had four goals in three matches, but even that impressive tally doesn't begin to describe his worth. Despite having yet to notch an official assist, he's been busy creating opportunities for his teammates, whether it's through a spilled shot from a goalkeeper or via a dummy to allow another to safely run on to the ball. He commands the attack and seems to grow more confident in his choreography with each passing game.
As for the rest? Despite a decent performance from Giadomenico Mesto against Atalanta, it'll almost certainly be Christian Maggio starting at right back, and although there've been rumors that Juan Zúñiga isn't happy at Napoli, he'll still likely win out over compatriot Pablo Armero. In between the fullbacks, captain Paolo Cannavaro got his first start in the last round and will likely take the armband once again, alongside Raúl Albiol. Protecting the defense will most likely be the Swiss duo of Valon Behrami and Gokhan Inler, although Dzemaili could see time if Napoli need some extra oomph in their attack.