Juventus
    Juventus
      10.01.2015 16:05 - in: Serie A S

      Napoli in the spotlight

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      Founded in 1904, the Partenopei play their home matches at the San Paolo and are currently managed by Spanish tactician Rafael Benitez

      Club

      Napoli were first founded as Naples Foot-Ball and Cricket Club in 1904 by English sailors William Poths and Hector M. Bayon, avid amateur footballers who decided to set up a team in collaboration with a group of Neapolitans.

      Their first real taste of competitive action was in the Lipton Challenge Cup conceived by Sir Thomas Lipton, owner of the famous tea company. A competition between Campanian and Sicilian teams, it usually saw Napoli pitted against Palermo in the final, and the Partenopei triumphed in 1911 and 1914.

      The original team merged with a breakaway international strand to form Associazione Calcio Napoli in 1926, but it didn’t initially produce success on the field: the following season they finished bottom of the league after picking up a solitary point from 18 games.

      Results improved, though, thanks to the prowess of Paraguayan-born hero Attila Sallustro, who was the club’s first major star and their all-time top goalscorer until Diego Maradona broke his record of 111.

      Napoli finished third in Serie A in both 1932/33 and 1933/34, but erratic form then took over, and it wasn’t until 1962 that they enjoyed real success, beating Emilia-Romagna-based outfit SPAL to lift the Coppa Italia that year.

      In 1967/68 they mounted their first convincing challenge for the Scudetto, finishing second behind Milan with a team including Dino Zoff, Jose Altafini and Omar Sivori (the first two of which would go on to star for Juventus and the latter had already done so).

      The Partenopei consistently finished in the upper reaches of the league until 1983, when they became dragged into a relegation battle.
      Needing a spark to turn their fortunes around, Napoli broke the world transfer fee a year later to bring in the player who would become the club’s most iconic figure: Maradona.

      In 1986/87, the Argentine number 10 inspired the team to a landmark double of Coppa Italia and Scudetto (the first league title for the Partenopei and also for any southern Italian team), after which he became a cultural and, in some areas, religious phenomenon.

      Two years later Napoli lifted the 1988/89 UEFA Cup, beating Juventus and Bayern Munich along the way to a final victory against Stuttgart, before winning the league title again the following year.

      But that era of achievement came to an end as the club went into decline, both on the pitch and financially, until being struck by bankruptcy in 2004.

      The man who rescued Napoli was film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, under whom they have made a swift rise from Serie C to their current position of threatening for the Scudetto.

      The 2012/13 campaign saw the Partenopei contest Juventus for the Serie A title but they ultimately finished second behind the Bianconeri, it was the club’s best performance since winning the Scudetto in 1990.

      Following Walter Mazzarri’s exit to Serie A rivals Inter and the sale of star man Edinson Cavani abroad in 2013, De Laurentiis brought in Rafael Benitez as manager and a whole host of summer signings in the form of Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens.

      Due to the resurgence of Roma and Juventus running away with the league title following a record points haul, Napoli finished third in the table but still secured their fifth Coppa Italia by beating Fiorentina in the final.

      The Partenopei currently lie joint-third with Lazio on 30 points in Serie A, with the two sides only separated by goal difference. Benitez’s men won the first domestic trophy of the season when they beat Juventus in the Super Cup back in December 2014. Following 120 minutes of football, the final score was 2-2 before Napoli triumphed 6-5 on penalties.   

      Stadium

      Napoli’s home is the Stadio San Paolo, originally named the Stadio del Sole before being re-christened in honour of Saint Paul, who is said to have reached Italy through the port of Naples.

      Its 60,240 matchday capacity makes it the third largest ground in Italy after the San Siro in Milan and the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, and the boxing and martial arts gyms housed within mean that it can also host other sporting contests.

      Juventus competed against Napoli in the very first game played at the ground in 1959. The Bianconeri lost 2-1 that day, but have had ample revenge with 20 away victories there since then.

      The San Paolo underwent extensive renovations in preparation for the 1990 World Cup, a tournament in which it hosted an extraordinary semi-final between Italy and Argentina.

      With their beloved Maradona lining up against the Azzurri, the Napoli faithful were torn, a feeling that was made worse when their number 10 asked them to cheer on Argentina. They chose to get behind their homeland, but in the end it was their hero himself who stepped up to sink Italy with the winning penalty.

      The public at the stadium is famously one of the most devoted around, with a 51,000-strong crowd turning up to watch the last match of the 2005/06 season despite the Partenopei being in Serie C1 (a record attendance for that division).

      Transfer activity

      Thirty-one-year-old shotstopper Mariano Andujar joins from Catania after the Sicilians were relegated to Serie B. He is yet to make his competitive debut for Napoli but will prove able backup as the season wears on.

      French centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly arrives from Belgian side Genk to provide defensive stability to a Napoli rearguard which leaked 39 goals last season. Famed for his brute force, the 23-year-old is also blessed with quick feet and reads the game well.

      Versatile utility man David Lopez signed for the club on a five-year contract on the last day of the summer transfer window. The former Espanyol star is predominately a defensive midfielder but can also fill in at the heart of defence. Lopez is strong in the challenge and will provide protection in front of the Napoli rearguard.

      Having previously spent the last two seasons farmed out on loan at Swansea from Villarreal, Jonathan de Guzman penned a four-year deal at the Stadio San Paolo. The 27-year-old immediately endeared himself to the Partenopei faithful with a last-gasp goal on his debut during Napoli’s 2-1 opening day win over Genoa plus a hat-trick against Young Boys in the Europa League group stages.

      Miguel Perez Cuesta, commonly known as Michu, also arrives on the back of a two-year stint at Premier League club Swansea after signing a season-long loan deal. Normally deployed in the number 10 role, the 28-year-old can also play as a lone frontman. Regarded by many as a bargain buy during his time in Wales, he helped the Swans to their maiden League Cup victory after netting the second in a 5-0 victory over Bradford in 2013.

      Former Bianconero Manolo Gabbiadini signed for Napoli at the start of this January transfer window. An exciting young striker with a venomous left foot, the 23-year-old scored seven goals and bagged two assists for Sampdoria before leaving for the San Paolo. Having already found the net past Gigi Buffon once this season, Gabbiadini will be eager to do the same on Sunday evening.

      Going the other way, both Blerim Dzemaili and Goran Pandev have left for Galatasaray in Turkey whilst Serie A veteran Valon Behrami has joined Hamburg in the Bundesliga.

      Speed merchant Eduardo Vargas has gone to Premier League outfit QPR on loan and last season’s number one Pepe Reina returned to Liverpool after the expiration of his loan deal before signing a permanent contract at European giants Bayern Munich.

      Current Team

      Club captain Marek Hamsik is the team’s most dangerous playmaker and continues to be prolific in front of goal since joining the club from Brescia back in 2007. The Slovakia international – who began his career with Slovan Bratislava before moving to Italy at the tender age of 17 – has made over 300 appearances for the Partenopei, scoring on 82 occasions.

      Brazilian shotstopper Rafael Cabral was named the club’s undisputed number one at the start of this campaign following the expiration of Reina’s loan deal. The 24-year-old won three league titles and a domestic cup with Santos before leaving for Naples and he has also made three appearances for the five-time World Cup winners.  

      Spanish defender Raul Albiol is now in his second season with Napoli. Signed from Real Madrid in 2013, the 29-year-old’s main asset is versatility due to being able to play at centre-back, right-back or even in the defensive midfield role. A La Roja international, he was part of the squads that won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and also has two European Championship winners’ medals to boot.

      Speedy winger Jose Callejon has been a revelation since also signing from Los Blancos last season. Currently the Partenopei’s top scorer with eight strikes, the 27-year-old can play in a variety of positions behind the frontman and regularly lays assists on to his team-mates. He has certainly found his feet in Naples after a mixed second stint with Real Madrid.

      Midfield metronome Gokhan Inler performs a similar role to Andrea Pirlo in the middle of the Partenopei park. Ambidextrous and an excellent passer of the ball, he is the starting point of most Napoli moves and breaks up opposition attacks with ease. The Basel youth graduate has made over 80 appearances for the Switzerland national team.

      Proven goalscorer Gonzalo Higuain – who netted 107 times in 190 games for Real Madrid before leaving for Napoli last season – is a real menace for opposition defenders. Part of the Argentina side beaten by Germany in last year’s World Cup final, Higuain was actually born in France and has been described by Partenopei fan favourite Maradona as the perfect frontman. His two goals against Juventus in the Super Cup final salvaged his team from the jaws of defeat and he’ll be the man to keep tabs on again this Sunday.

      Free-kick specialist Lorenzo Insigne is the jewel in the Napoli crown. He became an Italian international at 21 and has been tipped as a future Azzurri star but a knee injury has curtailed his development this season. Insigne possesses amazing dribbling ability and is able to thread an eye of the needle pass when he sees fit.

      Manager

      After coming desperately close to various prizes over the years, De Laurentiis turned to Benitez – a manager who has experience of winning top honours – to try and steer the club back to their glory days.

      The 54-year old was a player to begin with, representing Real Madrid Castilla as a midfielder before picking up an injury whilst playing for Spain in the 1979 World Student Games that effectively ended his career.

      He soon moved into coaching at the age of 26, leading the Real Madrid Under 19s to Spanish Cup glory five years later and a domestic league and cup double two years after that.

      The Spaniard got his big break at Valencia in 2001, inheriting a promising team and making the most of the resources available to such good effect that he guided them to their first La Liga title in 31 years in 2002.

      He embarked on a new challenge at Liverpool in the 2004/05 season, and though his side could only manage fifth place in the Premier League that year, in Europe they exceeded all expectations.

      The Reds only progressed to the Champions League knockout stage on head-to-head difference, but the final against Milan in Istanbul is remembered as one of the greatest of all time: 3-0 down at half-time, Liverpool came back to eventually triumph 3-2 on penalties and crown Benitez a European champion in his first season in charge.

      An FA Cup title the next year meant that the Spaniard became the first ever Liverpool manager to win major trophies in both his first two seasons at the helm, but the team’s form began to drop and after failing to build on the club’s second-place finish in 2008/09 he left in June 2010.

      Just a few days later, Benitez took on the Inter post left vacant by Jose Mourinho after the Portuguese coach had moved on to Real Madrid, but by December the side had slipped to sixth position in the league and he was sacked just before Christmas.

      In November 2012, he became interim boss at Chelsea, who he led to Champions League qualification and a Europa League triumph despite consistently receiving a hostile reception from his own fans.

      Benitez replaced Walter Mazzarri – who was sacked at the Spaniard’s former club Inter earlier this season – at the end of May 2013.

      His first campaign in Italy resulted in a third-place finish and Coppa Italia success, with Napoli also lauded for their easy-on-the-eye style of play and he’ll be hoping his side can push both the Bianconeri and Roma for the Serie A title once again this season.

      With eight victories, six draws and three defeats, Benitez’s Napoli find themselves ten points behind league leaders Juventus but a win against the reigning champions on Sunday evening could blow the title race wide open and bring them firmly into contention.

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