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Serie A 2017-18 season preview: Napoli are facing a lot of pressure this year

With Serie A looking wide-open this season, Napoli will need to step things up a few notches and have no room for error.

SSC Napoli v OGC Nice - UEFA Champions League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: First Leg Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

The new Serie A season is upon us, and it’s a huge season for Napoli. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to say that this is the biggest season for the club in recent memory, and potentially one that could have major long-term impact on the team depending on how things shake out.

This year’s Serie A looks like it’s going to be a wide-open affair, with both Milan teams stepping up in a big way this summer while last season’s top five have all been fairly stagnant or even taken big steps back compared to last season. Napoli have a real chance to actually win the title this season — but they could just as easily slip down the table into places they cannot afford to be, and that’s a fate they absolutely must avoid at all costs.

What Napoli changed this summer

Napoli have only made two signings so far this summer, bringing in winger Adam Ounas and left back Mario Rui. Technically they also completed the signings of Nikola Maksimovic and Marko Rog, but both players have already been in Naples for a year, so that doesn’t quite count.

Neither signing will have much impact on the starting lineup — though Ounas’ presence could help give Jose Callejon more time off and keep him fresher for big games — so to date Napoli have really made minimal changes. Instead, they’re banking on the continuity factor, with a team that excelled attacking with each other for much of last season. If Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens, Lorezno Insigne, and Callejon can continue to grow and improve with one another, that continuity could be a valuable weapon — as long as Napoli’s lack of improvements in other areas of the pitch don’t come back to haunt them.

What Napoli still need to work on

Napoli’s depth in defense and midfield leaves a lot to be desired. Piotr Zielinski, Amadou Diawara, and Marko Rog are all good midfielders who should see plenty of action this season, but none of them give Napoli a real defensive option in the middle of the pitch, and all have struggled to help replace the creative spark of Marek Hamsik and Jorginho when those two are in-form but need to step off the pitch for one reason or another.

Add in question marks in defense like Christian Maggio, Vlad Chiriches, and Lorenzo Tonelli, and there’s a lot of reasons to be concerned as to how well this squad will hold up this season as constructed, because right now they just don’t have the depth to swing with the big boys. That lack of depth cost Napoli dearly at times last season, and in a much more competitive league this season they can ill-afford further problems like that.

Then there’s questions in goal. How much more can Pepe Reina give Napoli at a high level? Who’s going to replace him? Luigi Sepe and Rafael Cabral don’t look like valid options at this point in their respective careers, and Napoli need to find someone to be a long-term option at goalkeeper. They’ve been connected with numerous keepers this summer, but a lack of financial flexibility kept them from pulling the trigger.

Part of that lack of flexibility comes from the lack of a guarantee of Champions League football — Napoli need the €60 million they’d get in TV rights and other funds from making the group stage, and with their income that’s very low compared to teams at a similar competitive level, they can’t afford to splurge without that money guaranteed. Add in a fair amount of dead weight on the roster in the wages of Emanuele Giaccherini, Leonardo Pavoletti, Duvan Zapata, and a couple of others, and it’s tough for Napoli to go too hard in the transfer market without putting themselves at financial risk that they can ill afford to have go bad.

There’s still time left in the transfer window, but even if Napoli make the Champions League proper and transfer away some of that dead weight on their wage bill, we still shouldn’t expect to see more than one big transfer and one or two depth signings. There just isn’t enough time to get more players than that integrated into the squad, especially with Maurizio Sarri’s policies regarding showing tactical comfort in training before getting major minutes in game action.

Napoli have high hopes for this season

Still, despite all the shortcomings and issues this summer, Napoli and their fans have high hopes and high expectations for this season. Juventus and AS Roma both look vulnerable after shaky summers of their own, giving the partenopei a chance to pounce and maybe — just maybe — put themselves in the title picture in Serie A.

At the very least, they want to finish in the Champions League places again, and with Serie A holding four of them now instead of three, they should definitely be able to do just that. The bigger question is going to be where in that top four Napoli manage to finish; if Napoli play to their level all season, and if they stay healthy, and if they get some help in the form of struggles from their rivals in the title race, we might just have something to celebrate in Naples at the end of the season.

Of course, Serie A isn’t the only front Napoli compete on. If they qualify for the Champions League group stage — and anything less is unacceptable at this point — they’ll expect to get out of the group in impressive fashion again and, hopefully, make at least the round of 16 this time, after getting bounced in the first knockout round again last year.

And there’s the Coppa Italia, which has mostly been a secondary competition for Napoli under Maurizio Sarri, who has preferred to save his team’s energy for bigger matches, especially with the squad’s lack of depth. A title run there would be wonderful, but in all honesty the most important thing for Napoli in the cup is that they don’t suffer any crucial injuries.

There’s no predicting this season

But no matter how high Napoli’s hopes are for this season, their destiny isn’t entirely in their hands. We don’t know how Juventus will respond to this pressure on them from the rest of the league after a poor summer. We don’t know how Roma’s shaky squad will hold up this year. We don’t know how long it will take for AC Milan’s terrifyingly talented new squad to gel, or just how good they’ll be when they get rolling. Inter Milan’s changes are less extreme, but they should still be a huge should better than a year ago. Then teams like Atalanta and Lazio and perhaps even Udinese or Sampdoria can always pose a threat, and maybe even Fiorentina if they can overcome their disastrous summer.

In other words, Napoli can play fantastically this season and still wind up out of the title race. It’s an all too familiar story for them these past few years against Juventus, but with the top end of the league looking closer in quality than they have in years and with a few good spoilers lurking, there’s no way to say for a certainty where Napoli — or anyone else — are going to finish this season.

It’s going to be a wild ride, and knowing Napoli one it’s going to be a stressfully fun one as well. Hopefully we see a lot more of the good side of this team, because they have a real opportunity to do something great this season. Fingers crossed, because this city needs something amazing to celebrate.