Prior to the start of the 2013-2014 season, Napoli fans seemed divided as to how they thought the season would go. Some were excited to usher in the reign of Rafa Benítez, a coach who'd been successful in a variety of leagues, and was particularly noted for having achieved success in Europe.
Then there were the skeptics. The ones that pointed out that Rafa's taking a side that had won the Champions League the year before and overseeing them lifting the Europa League trophy wasn't that big of an accomplishment. His first turn in Italy nearly saw him laughed out of Inter Milan. Really, he'd hardly shown any success in the past ten years, since his time of triumph at Liverpool.
And, oh yeah, Edison Cavani was gone.
Napoli got right down to business in the transfer market, though, looking to blow the €60m+ brought in by Cavani's sale, and throw some other money around while they were at it. News that young Santos keeper Rafael was joining Napoli was met with excitement, as was the addition of Dries Mertens from PSV. Duván Zapata seemed like a good buy for the future, and why not bring Pepe Reina in on loan, at least while Rafael was getting used to Serie A?
Of course, the news that had Napoli fans jumping up and down was the signing of Gonzalo Higuaín from Real Madrid. Cavani he wasn't (there'd be no last-ditch clearances from Pipita) but he was a proven goalscorer who'd help ease the pain. What we weren't sure about were the two other players coming from Real: Raúl Albiol and José Callejón. Were they really suited to start for a side gunning for a title and competing in the Champions League?
There was only one way to find out.
Let the season begin
Napoli began the Serie A season against Bologna, a bogey side that had, in the previous season, beaten them in the league before knocking them out of the Coppa three days later. But the season couldn't have gotten off to a better start, with Callejón knocking in his first goal for the club after barely 30 minutes had passed, and Marek Hamšík following that up with a brace. Plus, Napoli kept a clean sheet!
Two more wins saw Napoli go into first place (above Juventus, who drew with Inter Milan in the third round) ahead of their first Champions League group stage game. Considering we were up against Dortmund, the match had the potential to terrify. Instead, BVB were terrified. Higuaín scored before 30 minutes were out, and Jürgen Klopp lost his head. He was sent to the stands, followed soon by Roman Weidenfeller, who'd handled outside the area. Camilo Zúñiga helped out the visitors by putting the ball in Napoli's own net, but ultimately the partenopei came away with the 2-1 win.
It seemed Napoli were destined to make people lose their cool, as the very next game featured a red card for Mario Balotelli. The Italian was a teeny bit put out by the fact that Pepe Reina managed to save his penalty shot, his first miss in 23 attempts. Balo managed a goal in stoppages, but then saw red for complaining to the ref. That was Napoli's first victory over Milan at the San Siro in 27 years.
After beating Bologna, Chievo, Atalanta, Milan and Dortmund, Napoli slipped up against Sassuolo, of all sides. The Serie A newcomers had lost their first four matches, the last of which was a 7-0 rout by Inter. Rafa, well known for his rotation policies, refused to play it safe, switching out three of his four defenders and bringing on Goran Pandev. Blerim Džemaili put in one of his trademarked distance shots, but Simone Zaza equalized soon after, and Sassuolo closed ranks, keeping the score even.
Beating Genoa was simple enough, but then Napoli had to head for London. Certain segments of the partenopei faithful turned off this match after fifteen minutes, but the damage had already been done: goals from Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud. It just went to show that Pandev could very well put a brace past Genoa, but shouldn't be starting in Champions League games.
Livorno's visit was a welcome respite, and Napoli easily dispatched the amaranto, 4-0. But then came a visit to Roma, who had won their first seven matches, conceding just one in the process. That match went about as well as could be expected, with Napoli failing to score and losing for the first time in the season.
Napoli's packed schedule continued with a trip to France. A win was crucial to keep pace with Dortmund and Arsenal, but Marseille's defending made it difficult to break through. Callejón put Napoli ahead just before the break, and Duván Zapata doubled the lead shortly after coming on for Higuaín. Things got scary when Andre Ayew scored with five minutes left to play, as the hosts desperately needed a point to keep hopes of progressing alive. Fortunately the azzurri headed home with the win.
Still on a high from their Champions League performance, Napoli had no trouble dispatching Torino, setting up a tantalizing game in Florence. Fiorentina were fifth, but their summer business made it clear they were gunning for third place. Except usually those fighting for a Champions League spot don't just let players drift into the area unmarked. Ziggy had no trouble scoring, but the lead lasted only 15 minutes. Fiorentina were awarded a penalty, Reina went the wrong way and Giuseppe Rossi made the scoreline level. Napoli proved too much for Fiorentina, though, with Mertens putting them ahead shortly after, and Reina performing some great saves. The match had descended into madness by the final whistle, with Christian Maggio sent off for the final ten minutes, then Juan Cuadrado receiving a second yellow for diving. It looked like maybe the viola should've been awarded a penalty, but hey, crying wolf and all that.
Napoli's injury crisis, which began with Zúñiga's knee injury in late August, and continued through to Higuaín's injury in October, grew even worse when Giandomenico Mesto came off early against Catania, replaced by Bruno Uvini, a man most people had forgotten even existed. Hamšík played the whole game, however, which meant Pandev started against Marseille, with Rafa seemingly having an eye on the upcoming clash with Juventus. The Frenchies gave us a scare by scoring early, but eventually Napoli emerged with a 3-2 win.
Napoli's slump was short, yet its ripples reached out through the entire season. First up was the loss at Juventus, when Fernando Llorente put the bianconeri up within two minutes. The result put Napoli third, where they would remain for the entire rest of the season.
Then Parma came to the San Paolo and had the cheek to win. But the worst part wasn't Antonio Cassano's goal. No, the worst part was that they broke Marekiaro. Our captain, on for not even ten minutes, was kicked by one of those ugly brutes, resulting in a broken toe. It wasn't so much that the injury kept him out for a month and a half, but that Marek never looked the same after. He'd been a beast for the first few months of the season, and looked set to knock in fifteen or more goals. Instead he was a shadow of his former self, only providing glimpses of the player seen earlier in the year.
Without Hamšík, Napoli were likely to struggle in their next game. Unfortunately, that was the Champions League date at Dortmund. While the visitors looked up to the challenge, Dortmund scored early, then Weidenfeller and the post combined to ensure that only Lorenzo Insigne was able to score, giving BVB the 3-1 win.
Joys and Sorrows
In happy news, that was the last time Napoli would lose until February. In less happy news, going unbeaten mattered little. Juventus and Roma were unreachable in the league. And as for Europe...
Napoli were incredible in the final group stage game. They wore down Arsenal, with Pipita eventually breaking through with about fifteen minutes left to play. Callejón added another deep in stoppage time, but it wasn't enough. Napoli fans had been riding a high after Higuaín's goal, as Dortmund and Marseille were locked in a 1-1 draw. But Kevin Großkreutz, who all Napoli supporters are contractually required to hate until the end of time, put Dortmund ahead with three minutes to go.
That stupid goal meant Napoli were out of the Group of Death and into the Europa League.
Next up: the less exciting but ultimately more complex second half of the season