The story of Napoli's Coppa Italia championship isn't just a story of yesterday. Yesterday was vital, of course, but the story began long before that. Not just in January, when Napoli played their first match of the tournament; no, even that date is too recent. The story begins almost a full year ago, when a certain Spaniard put pen to paper in a press room in Naples.
Rafa was brought in with two goals: win matches, and more importantly, win trophies. He's done plenty of both in his time, winning La Liga twice with Valencia, the Champions League and FA Cup with Liverpool, both the UEFA and Europa Cups, and several variations of the Supercup scattered all over the world. Despite perhaps not being the most beloved manager around, the amount of success Rafa has brought to his clubs simply could not be ignored.
Rafa was coming off a tumultuous six month spell as Chelsea's interim manager, where he won the Europa League despite massive backlash and hatred from the fanbase at every perceived wrongdoing. In need of a fresh start, he seemed like the perfect candidate for Aurelio De Laurentiis to tap, and that's exactly what Napoli's eccentric president did despite what was thought to be long odds to do so.
Benitez came in and immediately started to aggressively reshape the squad in his image. His first task, unfortunately, was to accept the inevitable sale of Edinson Cavani and using those significant funds to bring in new faces in several key areas of the squad. Arguably his most notable decision after the departure of El Matador was to bring in three Real Madrid outcasts who would become vital parts of the Napoli squad despite the misgivings of some of the more traditionally Italian members of the fanbase.
Once the season started, things seemed to click shockingly fast. Despite the red-hot starts of both Juventus and Roma, Napoli were in the title chase conversation well in to the winter, and put in an incredibly strong performance in the Champions League after a brutally tough draw. Put up against Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, and Marseille, Napoli managed 12 incredible points, including massive home wins against both Dortmund and Arsenal, before losing out and dropping to the Europa league on tiebreakers.
That brings us to January, and the first direct steps on the Coppa path.
First came the round of sixteen, and drawn with Napoli were Atalanta. Napoli were the hosts, and Atalanta were an anchorless midtable side; hardly worth troubling anyone over, right? Well, if the nerazzurri had anything to say about it, that wouldn't be the case. A gorgeously executed counter in the 14th minute left Napoli scratching their heads and wondering what had gone so terribly wrong to have themselves behind so early in the match.
Apparently it didn't take long to find an answer. Mere moments later, Jose Callejon, one of the aforementioned ex-Madrid castoffs, put Atalanta's defense to the sword, volleying home an Anthony Reveillere cross to equalize.
Most of the rest of the match would be a cagey affair, with little separating the two sides. A late, crucial mistake by Atalanta's left back, appealing for offside instead of continuing play, led to an untimely deflection that was gladly gobbled up by Lorenzo Insigne and hammered home for the go-ahead goal. Atalanta would shortly thereafter go down to ten men, something Napoli took full advantage of minutes later for a third goal, another volley from Callejon after a picture-perfect run to find space to receive a cross.
With Atalanta down and out of the picture, it was Lazio's turn to come to Naples for the quaterfinal. The late January match saw Napoli in the middle of a tough run of form that would unfortunately plague the partenopei for much of the rest of the season. Lazio weren't in such great shape themselves, with Edy Reja having taken on the job of managing the Roman side just a few weeks before after a miserable first half and public disagreements with the club's board cost Vladimir Petkovic his job.
It was a tense, dour affair, with Lazio unwilling to give up much space in defense and lacking the personnel to get forward effectively, and Napoli struggling to put together a cogent attack. The highlight of the match, though, was the performance of Jorginho, then still a brand-new arrival making one of his first appearances for the club. The Brazilian midfielder was a revelation in the middle of the pitch, buzzing around all over disrupting Lazio's play and distributing the ball to his teammates with both efficiency and gifted vision.
The breakthrough winner would come via two of the once-controversial former Real Madrid players, by then entrenched as some of the best at their positions in Italy. With less than ten minutes to play, Jose Callejon fired in a wicked shot that Etrit Berisha could only parry away, but Gonzalo Higuain was in perfect position to blast the rebound past him for the winner. Lazio were helpless to chase an equalizer, and Napoli were through to the semifinals with a song in their hearts.
The semi-final draw put them up against AS Roma... and for now, that's where we'll leave you on this Coppa journey. We'll return later today with the rest of this astounding story.
The Journey Continues Here