With the return of Pepe Reina, Napoli have something of a situation in goal: too many options, not enough roster spots. Some would argue that such a dilemma is only a good thing, but Napoli are going to be faced with some tough decisions in the coming weeks to pare things down at the position, and it's not going to be easy.
Obviously, Pepe Reina is the anointed starter between the sticks. He was brought in to start, and he's probably going to be given a long leash in terms of what has to go wrong before he gets benched. But he needs a good backup, not just because of cup matches and the like -- what version of Reina Napoli will get is very much unknown.
When he arrived in Naples, Reina was a conquering hero. He kept a bunch of clean sheets, stopped Mario Balotelli's perfect penalty record, and generally looked quite good. Then he suffered a couple of minor injuries, and the story completely changed. That swagger and quality was gone, replaced by the tentative, mistake-riddled goalkeeper who struggled to read the game correctly that Reina had been in his last two years with Liverpool, two years that earned him a ticket out of Anfield.
Given that his time at Bayern Munich didn't go any better -- Reina only played a few times, never really convinced, and ended his time with the club serving a red card suspension for an idiotic foul -- Napoli need a strong backup plan in place just in case they get the wrong version of Reina. Injuries have also been an increasing factor in his career over the last five years, so the partenopei probably can't expect him to be always available anyways.
So who among the various goalkeepers Napoli have should be the man to back Reina up? Who can best step up when needed?
We start with the guy who backed up Reina when he was first with Napoli, and who first tried to replace him: Rafael Cabral. The Brazilian was widely touted as the next great goalkeeper for his country, and it seemed like Napoli had done very, very well to get him. He did fantastically in his first season with the club, making a number of excellent saves when he stepped in for Reina, and even outplayed him for a spell in the second half of the season when the Spaniard was hurt.
Then that damn Swansea match happened.
Rafael played out of his mind in the first half of a Europa League knockout match against the Welsh club, making some amazing saves and keeping a struggling Napoli team in the match all by himself. Then, because fate is a rank bastard, he came down badly after leaping to stop a shot, and tore his ACL. Rafael finished the last few minutes of the half, even making a couple more saves despite obviously being in significant pain, but he was replaced at halftime and that was the last we'd see of him for the season.
The Brazilian made an impressive recovery, though, and Rafael was declared the starting goalkeeper going into this past season. He had some shaky moments to start the season, which realistically was expected, but after Napoli lost in the Champions League playoff round, the fanbase lot faith in Rafael. He would never get it back, even despite some very, very impressive performances in goal, but some bad luck and a blip in his form early in the second half of the season saw Rafa Benitez bench Rafael, never to return.
The talent is still there, and at just 25 there's still so much time for Rafael to develop and improve. But it's starting to seem like Rafael's time in Naples is at an end. There's been a lot of talk of a return to Santos in Brazil so he can get back to himself, and despite the fact that Napoli could really use Rafael this season to back up Reina, that might be the best thing for him. Hopefully they can work it out so the deal is a loan, allowing Rafael to play and regain his confidence, then return to Napoli as a legitimate option to start again.
Last season, Empoli enjoyed a fair amount of defensive success in large part thanks to a very good young Italian goalkeeper in Luigi Sepe. Unfortunately for Empoli, Sepe was only there on loan from Napoli, and now that he's back with the partenopei, what's next for the 24 year old seems very much up in the air.
On both form and roster value for the club -- more on that in a minute -- it seems like Sepe is Napoli's best choice to back up Reina. But Sepe wants to be a starter, and his talent and high quality performance this past season says he deserves it. If he won't get regular chances to start over Reina, then for the sake of both his happiness and development, Sepe should go on loan one more time to give him what he wants and needs.
But the club also has some needs, and at least at the moment, Sepe seems like the man most suited to fill them. If Reina falters again or gets hurt again, Sepe seems like the safest option to step up and replace him. That's worth a lot, and for that reason alone Napoli should find a way to talk him in to staying.
Sepe's value is more than that, though -- he counts as a club-trained player for both UEFA and the upcoming Serie A squad registration rules, something that Napoli don't have many of. In fact, they have just two in the first team right now: Sepe and Lorenzo Insigne. Not keeping him would force Napoli to use a non-homegrown roster spot on a backup goalkeeper, leaving their roster of outfield players thinner than it needs to be.
If Napoli are going to make keeping one of these goalkeepers a priority, it needs to be Sepe, both from talent and roster balance perspectives. Convincing him won't be easy with his desire to start, but if they can do it and balance the workload in goal enough to keep him happy, then they absolutely should make Sepe the guy.
Let's put this as simply as possible: Mariano Andujar is not good enough to be someone Napoli can rely on. He proved that over and over and over again last season, with far too many shaky or worse performances in goal after replacing Rafael Cabral. He had a few good performances, make no mistake, but those rare bursts of quality were far outweighed by his poor overall form.
Andujar will be 32 by the time the season starts, so it's not like you can expect him to figure things out and magically become better now. His record of performance in over 100 league matches with Catania was just OK, so it shouldn't really be surprising that stepping up a level saw him struggle.
Napoli need to move on from Andujar. Napoli's position in the league is on shaky enough ground without having to lean on a goalkeeper who simply isn't good enough.
A longtime backup in Naples, Roberto Colombo also has played exactly once in the four seasons he's been with Napoli. His presence in the squad helps for some roster issues -- he's helped Napoli meet homegrown quotas for players trained in Italy in UEFA competitions the last few years -- but at 39 and lacking much top-division playing time in the last decade, in reality he's really just a coach at this point. And that's fine and not at all lacking in value, especially for a third goalkeeper, but Napoli can't count on Colombo to perform at anything like a high level at this stage of his career.
Napoli have a couple of very interesting young goalkeepers in the primavera squad right now in Nikita Contini and Alessio Gionta. Neither of these players are in immediate contention to play for the club, they do bear some thinking about for the future.
Contini was a regular feature on Napoli's bench last season, and while he never played, he does have a history of impressing at the youth level. He's calm in goal, reads shots well, and distributes cleanly, all very good attributes to see in a young goalkeeper. He just turned 19 in May, so he's still some way from being ready to contribute to a club at Napoli's level, but it might also be time to start thinking about a loan for him to get first-team playing time to get his feet wet, perhaps in third-division Lega Pro.
Gionta has less experience, but the very athletic 18 year old did well when called upon when Contini was busy with the first team squad. He's even further behind Contini in his development, but he'll be "the guy" for the primavera squad if Contini does get that loan. If he does, Gionta will bear very close scrutiny to see how he develops, because he has all the physical tools to be a very good goalkeeper in time.