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Previewing Napoli’s 2016/17 Serie A season: High expectations, higher potential

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This season is going to be a wild, wild ride.

SSC Napoli v OGC Nice Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Last season, Napoli came in as an unknown factor for Serie A. They’d enjoyed plenty of success in the past, but a bad slump at the end of the previous season, a new and untested manager, and a squad with several key changes had many fans and observers wondering just what we’d see from the partenopei in the new season, and if they had what it took to challenge for a Champions League place again.

And oh how Napoli proved their doubters wrong. While they ultimately came up short thanks to a jaw-dropping run of form from Juventus, Napoli put on the strongest title challenge Serie A has seen in several years, emerging as Winter Champions and looking better in the league than they have since Walter Mazzarri was in charge. Maurizio Sarri brought a new shape, new ideas, and new energy to Napoli, and the squad responded magnificently, finishing second in the league and opening a lot of eyes along the way.

Now they have to do it again.

Gonzalo Higuain is gone. Several other key players may yet leave. There have been big signings, but not as many as fans were hoping for. Expectations are higher than ever, but the biggest question right now is whether Napoli have the firepower and depth to make a title run and put in a good showing in the Champions League.

This is going to be a long, wild, stressful season — and hopefully a fun one too.

Expectation level: Higher than ever

After a wildly successful season, Napoli fans will be crying for more, more, more, and not just in the midnight hour. Anything less than a title chase that goes down to the wire and a berth in the Champions League knockout rounds — preferably advancing to the quarterfinals — will be seen as at least some degree of disappointment, because fans want to see Napoli do better than ever after last season’s triumphs. That’s a lot to ask, but this squad is hungry and more talented than they’re given credit for, so they might just be able to give it.

Key signing: Arkadiusz Milik

As Napoli’s big-money signing of the summer so far — though that could change in the coming days before the end of the transfer window — the weight of expectation will be heavy on the 22 year old Polish striker. That’s especially true because Arek Milik is ostensibly the replacement for Higuain, though fans shouldn’t expect Milik to have the one-man-show impact that Higuain could bring — but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a big part of this team.

Milik’s high effort, teammate-friendly style might actually be a better fit for Sarri’s tactics than Higuain was, allowing them to play a more complete game in attack instead of having to just force it in to the big man all the time. Most importantly, though, is that Milik can allow Napoli to better utilize the audacious talents of Manolo Gabbiadini, and seeing how they work a balance between their two excellent strikers will be fascinating to watch play out.

All signings: Milik (Ajax, €32 million), Piotr Zielinski (Udinese, €14 million), Lorenzo Tonelli (Empoli, €10 million), Emaniele Giaccherini (Sunderland, €1.4 million)

Key departure: Gonzalo Higuain

What is there to say? Napoli stood by him at a low point in his career a year ago, and put together a side that propelled him to a record-setting goalscoring season. His response to the respect and aid the club gave him? To petulantly force a move not just out of the club, but to Napoli’s direct rivals in the title race. His goals may be missed, but the man certainly won’t be.

All departures: Higuain (Juventus, €94 million), Mariano Andujar (Estudiantes, €500,000), Camilo Zuniga (Watford, loan with purchase clause), Bruno Uvini (Al Nasr, free), Gabriel (AC Milan, end of loan), Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea, end of loan), Vasco Regini (Sampdoria, end of loan)

As a special note, while the loss of Chalobah may not have a huge impact on the side given his playing time last season, it was sad to see him head back to Chelsea. Napoli did want to keep him and it seemed as though the feeling was mutual, but a deal couldn’t be worked out with the English club. Chalobah is a tremendously talented player who went through a lot in Naples — including the passing of his mother — and seemed to grow even more as a player and person. Chalobah will, in my mind, always have a place with Napoli’s squad should the opportunity ever arise for him to return.

Key player: Marek Hamsik

Perhaps an obvious choice as the club’s captain, the tumult the club has faced this summer only makes Hamsik’s influence more important. With Higuain gone in such publicly brutal fashion, Kalidou Koulibaly having tried to force a move of his own, and Lorenzo Insigne’s agent recently being a petulant piece of — ahem — things are fairly unsteady right now.

Napoli need Hamsik to step up once more and be the leader we know he is, and they need that from him more than ever. He’s the club’s best and most important player, and a massive unifying element, and he can push the club a long ways. It would be nice, however, to see the squad stand up with him and push Napoli even further.

Unsung hero to watch: Allan

One of the common themes of the summer’s transfer rumors has been bringing in a big, powerful, lung-busting midfielder to give Napoli an upgrade in the middle of the pitch. While that would certainly be welcome, as meat in the middle has been a weakness for the club at times in the past, such a signing would have one big negative impact: knocking Allan out of the lineup.

Allan was quietly a huge part of Napoli’s success last season, putting in tremendous defensive efforts through fantastic on-pitch awareness and intelligence to make up for his lack of size and power, and being a big part of the attack thanks to a sorely underrated skillset going forward. No matter what happens in the transfer market, do not forget Allan.

Season Prediction: Second place in Serie A, advancing to Champions League round of 16

While some fans think and hope that Napoli can knock Juventus off the mountain, the fact of the matter is that they’re not quite there yet. They’ve got the second-best squad in Serie A by a comfortable margin — Roma could have challenged them there, but their transfer window was a mess — and even if Napoli spend a ton of money in the last week-plus of the transfer window, they’re still probably going to have the second-best squad in Serie A. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — even losing Paul Pogba, Juventus have built a tremendous machine over the last six years, and Napoli have still closed the gap more than you might have expected over the last couple of years.

They still have work to do, though, and while they can mount a serious challenge, they probably don’t have the depth to succeed on two fronts like the bianconeri can. They can, however, do enough to advance out of their Champions League group, but their tendency to bad luck in European draws will probably see their journey end shortly after that.