After a roller coaster ride in the first half of the season, Napoli came out of the winter break in a strong position. They sat in third place, just ten points behind the Scudetto leaders Juventus and five behind Roma for second place. With some fascinating rumors about who might be coming in the transfer window and an easy-looking stretch of their schedule ahead, there was plenty of reason for optimism that this could be the year for Napoli.
Despite the solid batch of signings made in the summer, Napoli still had some holes to fill in the roster thanks to injuries and disappointments. A lack of depth in some areas lead to an over-reliance on some players, and a couple of additions were needed just to get some fresh legs in to the side.
If for no other reason, the transfer window was interesting for the variety of rumors. Napoli seemed to have a deal tied up for Maxime Gonalons, but Lyon's president killed the deal at the last minute. Instead, Napoli wound up adding Jorginho to midfield, which couldn't have worked out much better. They also added young left back Faouzi Ghoulam, which turned out to be an inspired signing, and made a less-interesting signing of Henrique Buss, but that actually worked out much better than anticipated.
All in all, it was a good and reasonable group of additions, and didn't set the club back very much money at all. It was a smart and well-executed set of signings, and each of the three additions helped Napoli win at different points in the spring. That's all you can ask for from a winter transfer window.
The second got off to a roaring start, with pole-to-pole beatings of Sampdoria and Hellas Verona in the league, and Atalanta in the Coppa. Just like that, Napoli were two points back of Roma and on a roll, and everything seemed to be coming up roses.
Marek Hamsik was still out injured, but was on the cusp of a return to the starting lineup. Pepe Reina was hurt again, but Rafael Cabral had stepped up in a big way and was actually showing signs of being able to outplay the Spaniard. Federico Fernandez was really coming in to his own in the starting lineup, showing a strong form that would last the rest of the season. Gonzalo Higuain looked to be continuing the strong form he'd shown at the end of the first half of the season.
At the time, there was little reason for pessimism. Napoli were playing strong football, the squad was getting better, and while the schedule was soon to be crowded with the Europa League and more Coppa Italia matches, but nothing looked too difficult on the immediate horizon.
Sadly, not all good things can last. Consecutive gut-punch draws to relegation-threatened sides served to open some eyes and cause concern, but it wasn't until the 3-0 loss to Atalanta that people really started to worry. It wasn't even the scoreline as much as the fact that Napoli never really seemed in the match, and even through it was an away match it was one Napoli shouldn't have had nearly so hard a time with.
Things were buoyed somewhat by a nice tonking of AC Milan, but that only served to paper over cracks that were reopened by two more consecutive flat performances that lead to draws against clubs Napoli should have beaten handily. It became a sadly common theme to play down to their opposition through the rest of the season, and even when they won the results were rarely as comprehensive as they should have been.
Europe provided no relief from the trend. A weirdly absent display from Napoli saw them play out a scoreless draw away at Swansea, and even when they won at home in the second leg, the match didn't feel as comfortable as the 3-1 scoreline suggested. Then they only barely kept a 1-0 loss at Porto in hand, and an utter collapse for 20 minutes in the home leg saw Porto put the tie out of reach. Any dreams of winning the club's first European trophy in 25 years was snuffed out with barely a whimper of resistance.
There were some high points through the misery, though. Despite losing to Roma in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final, the run of play was very even, and they used superior fitness levels and planning to blow them out of the water in the second leg at the San Paolo. Of every match Napoli played all season, that was probably the most complete performance, and the most thoroughly demoralizing beating they gave any club, even with some results having wider scorelines.
They'd beat Roma again in March, giving them a more thorough kicking than the 1-0 scoreline might suggest. Later that month, they went toe-to-toe with Juventus and came out on top, rarely looking out of control in a 2-0 over the eventual Scudetto winners, ultimately proving to be one of just two clubs to beat Juve all year long.
The highlight, though, was the 3-1 thriller win over Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia final in Rome. We all know the story of the match by now, and of all the drama around it, but being able to watch the squad lift that trophy made so much of the pain of the second half of the season worth the effort of going through it all. No matter what else, we should be proud of what they did to win the first trophy of the Rafa Benitez era.
Despite the generally disappointing second half of the season, there was a lot of reason to have hope for next season. Despite a few flaws, this is a pretty darn well-constructed side already, and most of the problems faced are depth-oriented, not quality-oriented. That means they'll be easier to fix without breaking the bank, especially with several sellable players around to help pad the transfer fund a bit.
As far as players currently around, guys like Duvan Zapata and Rafael Cabral really opened some eyes in the chances they got, showing that they have what it takes to hack it at this level a lot sooner than most people thought. Josip Radosevic's chances to prove himself were more limited, but he still did well with them when called upon. As long as they can stay healthy (or get healthy, in Rafael's case), they can help add to the core of talent for Rafa Benitez and the club at large to rely on.
That depth of talent was on display in the last few matches, as Napoli signed off on the season with a run of three strong wins, including two five-goal efforts that saw the squad relaxed and having fun, and getting contributions from all over the pitch. Knowing the great crop of players that Napoli already have, it's hard not to dream big after what's starting to look like a good summer. This is a club that's done some exciting things, and is well capable of even bigger excitement down the line. Hopefully in a couple years' time we'll be looking back at this as the start of a truly great time to be a Napoli fan.