Last season, when Pepe Reina got hurt, Napoli fans were worried. Replacing him was this Brazilian kid, whom most Napoli fans had never heard of prior to getting bought early that summer. Sure, he was supposed to have done well with Santos, but was he actually any good when it came to "proper" competition? Would he be able to hold up to the rigors of Serie A?
Then Rafael Cabral went to work, and all the doubts went away.
The big Brazilian played eleven matches (well, ten and a half, but we'll get to that) for Napoli and did not lose once. Rafael surrendered nine total goals while between the posts, showing wonderful reflexes and a natural shot-stopping ability that wouldn't be out of place in the upper tier of goalkeepers in Italy. He also displayed better-than-expected capacities for controlling his area and working in the air on set-pieces, though his distribution still needs some work.
Unfortunately, on a fateful Thursday night in February, things stopped going so well. Rafael was almost heroic in goal against Swansea City in a Europa League match in Wales, making save after massive save, many of them of the highest quality. Then after a mid-air clash late in the first half on a corner, Rafael landed awkwardly, came up hobbling, and quickly went to ground. He'd torn his ACL, and that would be that for his first season.
Earlier this month, however, Rafael passed a key fitness test that allowed him to return to training, and now based on an interview he gave to Il Mattino, it sounds like he's eager for the season to start.
"I am ready for the challenges this year, beginning with the Champions League," Rafael told the Italian paper. "I played 11 games last year and the team remained unbeaten with me, and I hope it remains that way for a long time.
"I knew, because [Rafa] Benitez was clear that I had to acclimate, I would have to wait 5 or 6 months before being able to play because European football is not like that of Brazil, even though I had won so much there with Santos. Then came the injury, but thankfully I am healed. "
He also told Il Mattino that Napoli don't need another goalkeeper, that he's ready to go now and doesn't intend to need his backup to get much work in. That's unfortunate news for Mariano Andujar, but good news for Napoli fans. Hopefully it will also put to rest a recent renewal in Pepe Reina rumors, though where he goes if Napoli don't need him is certainly a matter of some debate. But if Rafael is truly ready to rock, Reina is unnecessary, and even if he needs a few games off early while getting his knee back in game shape, Andujar has enough Serie A experience and success to be a more than capable reserve when needed.