This hasn't been the most idyllic season for Napoli. The graceless Champions League exit, struggles in the league, shoddy defense, disappointing attackers. Napoli fans have had a real test of faith and patience the last few months, and that's lead to some persistent complaints and concerns from fans.
Arguably the biggest lightning rod for criticism from fans has been Napoli's goalkeeper, Rafael Cabral. The Brazilian was brought in last season to be the goalkeeper of the future, to sit behind Pepe Reina and learn from one of the greats of the era. It turned out Reina wasn't all that good for Napoli and got hurt a few times, and when Rafael got his chances to play he performed admirably, far above and beyond what anyone expected of him at the time.
Then came that damn match against Swansea, and Rafael missed the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
Over the summer, Napoli couldn't come to reasonable terms with Reina; he'd been on subsidized wages during his loan last season, but wanted a raise from his total wages that would have made him the second-highest paid Napoli player, behind only Gonzalo Higuain and higher even than Marek Hamsik. Napoli couldn't afford those kinds of wages and Reina's ever-declining play over the last few years certainly didn't warrant them. With the Spaniard unwilling to budge, Napoli wisely moved on and handed the starting job to Rafael.
He had a bit of a rocky start to the season while he got his feet back under him at the tail end of his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery, but Rafael quickly showed the form that excited so many last season, with top-shelf shot stopping, and showed better ability on crosses and set pieces than he did a year ago. His distribution has even been getting steadily better as the year wears on, making him ever more intriguing and proving he's the man for the job.
What's that, you say? What about how terrible he's been? What about all the mistakes he's made, all the goals he's played terribly, how much he's been holding Napoli back this season?
That's been the common cry in the Italian media when talking about Rafael, and much of the fanbase has bought it hook, line, and sinker. When a team starts giving up too many goals, it's easy to point at the goalkeeper and say "he did it," especially when his purchase was unpopular in the first place and he's, y'know, not Italian. The media does love to hate a foreigner.
The narrative couldn't be further from the truth, however. Yes, Rafael has made a few mistakes this season. A handful of goals allowed that he could have done better on. But to listen to the media, and those parts of the fanbase blindly regurgitating what they're told, you'd think that Rafael was at fault for every single goal Napoli has surrendered this season, and half of those given up by other goalkeepers in Italy besides. Hell, he's probably to blame for Italy's financial woes too.
The truth, though, is that Rafael has been one of Napoli's most important players, and one of the best goalkeepers in Italy. He's made game-saving stops in almost every match, and has single-handedly kept Napoli in several matches that they otherwise would have been blown out in.
So why does Napoli seem so much shakier in defense last year? Well... it's the defense.
Kalidou Koulibaly has been a revelation this season for Napoli, but outside of him, things have been a mess more often than not. Raul Albiol has been sloppy, both in technique and especially in his positioning. Christian Maggio has been better lately, but early in the season he was bad more often than not. Faouzi Ghoulam has been good when he's actually played, but when Miguel Britos has been on the left it's been a nightmare. As for Henrique... the less said, the better.
Too often this season, there've been breakdowns in defense that have left Rafael hung out to dry. Sometimes he's been able to pull off a miracle and keep out goals, but the level of perfection that's required of him at times is inhuman. Even Gianluigi Buffon or Manuel Neuer wouldn't have been able to do anything with some of the situations Rafael has been put in.
Could Napoli have a better goalkeeper? Sure. But Rafael is not a bad goalkeeper. He is, in fact, very good at his job, and he's getting better every week. Napoli have themselves one of the world's best young goalkeepers, and instead of trying to shun him and drive him out, Napoli fans should be embracing him for what he is.