During a TV interview with Mediaset earlier this season, Rafa Benitez was taught some local dialect by Raffaele Auriemma, one of the commentators who covers every Napoli game. The word he learned was ‘elevator’, which Benitez knew in Italian to be l’ascensore. However, in Naples they have a different translation. So how would you say it? Well, you would say o tram a muro - the tram on a wall.
Of all the things Auriemma could have taught Benitez, why he chose that particular piece of Neapolitan escapes me. Perhaps it was because as coach of Napoli he had gone straight to the top. Under him the team began the season with five straight victories. Napoli hadn’t managed that in close to half a century and did it by beating Milan at San Siro for the first time since April 13, 1986. That run also saw them overcome Borussia Dortmund, last year’s Champions League finalists and Europe’s hippest and most avant-garde team, in their first group stage game too.
The excitement around the club was incredible.
“A problem for me,” Benitez explained to La Repubblica, “is if I go to a restaurant I stop traffic.” Another anecdote he tells is about taking his family to Pompeii. At one stage he went to get his daughter an ice cream. “As I approached the kiosk, 50 fans showed up. Not 10, but 50, and they asked me many questions. When there are 10 it’s easy to speak. When there’s 50 it’s difficult to do so.”
Beatlemania, as Benitez no doubt became aware during his time in Liverpool, is one thing but the idolatry footballers and coaches receive in Naples is another altogether. Look no further for instance than the murals and shrines to Maradona that still adorn the city’s walls. To give you another idea of it, Benitez has had pizzas created in his honor, a figurine of him made and placed in Naples’ nativity scenes - the ultimate recognition - and even has a lookalike Sergio Vulcano, a local coffee shop barista, who found it odd how one day this summer customers started asking him for autographs.
So to say Benitez soon entered Neapolitan hearts is an understatement.
His appointment was seen as quite the coup, a sign of Napoli’s continued upward momentum, the next step in the furthering of their ambition from qualifying for the Champions League and challenging for the Scudetto to winning things other than the Coppa Italia again. It raised eyebrows but also their profile to an international level.
First of all, because of Benitez’s reputation as an elite coach with a record for lifting domestic, continental and intercontinental silverware. Second, in how he attracted big name players like Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid. Third, in the way he wanted the team to play, introducing an expansive, initiative taking, possession-based game, expressed through a 4-2-3-1, a system many of the top clubs in Europe use, instead of the ‘provincial’ 3-5-2, which is almost exclusive to Italy.
Juventus and Roma are having extraordinary history-making seasons in Serie A. In a normal year, Napoli, you sense, would be closer to the top."
Benitez broadened Napoli’s horizons. Early results and performances vindicated him too. Napoli came out of the blocks flying. Higuain wasted no time in making supporters forget Edinson Cavani. His fellow arrival from Real, Jose Callejon proved a revelation and Marek Hamsik picked up where he left off last season. They had the competition’s respect. The claim made by Juventus coach Antonio Conte that Napoli would run the champions closer this season and make it harder for the Old Lady to go three in a row looked accurate.
With time though, little by little the enthusiasm around the club has faded. The historic win at Milan was followed by a humbling 1-1 draw at home to promoted Sassuolo, who had been hammered 7-0 only three days earlier by Inter and had lost every game up until then. Blame for the draw was placed on Benitez’s rotation strategy. He had made six changes. It would become a familiar gripe.
A week later there was another reality check at the Emirates. That game revealed a couple of truths about Napoli this season. One, that without Higuain, they’re a different, less threatening, proposition with either Goran Pandev or Duvan Zapata in his place. Second, that the transition from the back three Napoli have played since their return to the top flight in 2007 to a back four isn’t a smooth one, that Raul Albiol lacks a solid partner at centre-back and that asking wing-backs to be full-backs is easier said than done.
Zuniga, for what it’s worth, has been out injured since that night. Higuain returned off the bench away at Roma a fortnight or so later, but came on too late and wasn’t fit enough to make an impact. Napoli succumbed 2-0. Unlucky in Rome, they bounced back from it, winning their next five matches in a row but got outplayed by Juventus in Turin, another disappointment in a big game. They also surprisingly lost at home for the first time in almost a year to Parma before having their shortcomings exposed again in a 3-1 dismantling by Dortmund.
That period was when doubts began to set in. Though unbeaten over the next 10 games, draws with Udinese and Chievo at home and Cagliari and Bologna away only served to dampen the mood further. They’re teams experiencing difficult seasons, teams that Napoli should be beating. Last weekend’s performance in Bergamo was particularly exasperating. “Are you joking?” Auriemma asked in commentary. “Are Napoli really losing 3-0 to Atalanta?” They were.
A Pepe Reina howler and Gökhan Inler miscue allowed German Denis to score twice against his former club and celebrate with his son, a ball boy behind the goal. Maxi Moralez, the smallest player in Serie A, then put the game beyond any doubt. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Afternoons like that happen even to the best in football, but there was criticism for Benitez again notably because Higuain, Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne all started on the bench.
Resting them ahead of Wednesday’s Coppa Italia first leg against Roma caused a stir. Some accused Benitez of taking Atalanta who have now won 23 points from 33 at home, way too lightly Others felt his team selection indicated that, with Napoli already 12 points behind Juventus ahead of the Derby d’Italia that evening, he’d given up on the league and was prioritising the Coppa. Losing the first leg 3-2 to Roma didn’t help his cause even if it was not a bad result considering the away goals they scored.
“Same tactics… Same ways… Same covering your arse [excuses]... They’re beginning to get to know you… Better late than never,” tweeted Marco Materazzi after the Atalanta game. Of course, it was only a matter of time before the man Zidane headbutted got his axe out again and gave it a good old grind. Matrix, in case you’re wondering, isn’t Benitez’s biggest fan.
AC Milan's Mario Balotelli and Napoli's Marek Hamsik pictured during their clash at the San Siro in September (Getty)
The animosity stems from their brief time together at Inter. Materazzi claims that Benitez, a bit like Brian Clough on replacing Don Revie at Leeds in 1974, ordered all the pictures of his predecessor Jose Mourinho be taken down. He has also never got over Benitez’s decision not to give him a run out in the Club World Cup final against TP Mazembe in Abu Dhabi.
And so anything he says must be taken with a pinch of salt. Materazzi, though, isn’t the only World Cup winner to tweet his grievances at recent goings-on at Napoli.
Fabio Cannavaro also expressed his displeasure via social media at the treatment of his brother Paolo, the Napoli captain and centre-back, a talismanic figure born and bred in the city, who has been marginalised under Benitez and was sold to Sassuolo at the end of the January transfer window. The target of that tweet is thought to be owner Aurelio de Laurentiis but with Napoli’s defence their Achilles heel and Cannavaro’s stand-ins, Federico Fernandez and Miguel Britos, so far so unconvincing, justifying why he didn’t get a chance ahead of them to supporters is hard.
Still, things at Napoli should improve. They reinforced again in January, bringing in full back Faouzi Ghoulam, centre-back Henrique and midfielder Jorginho, the pick of the bunch. Benitez’s decision not to include the latter in Napoli’s Europa League squad, however, perplexed many although the exits of Cannavaro and Pablo Armero [to West Ham] and Giandomenico Mesto’s injury meant that Benitez had to use the three changes he could make to add cover in defence. Make no mistake about it the scrutiny is intense right now. A little perspective wouldn’t go amiss, though.
Juventus and Roma are having extraordinary history-making seasons in Serie A. In a normal year, Napoli, you sense, would be closer to the top. As for the Champions League, they’d still be in contention for that too were it not for some unprecedented bad luck. Remember Napoli became the first team ever to get 12 points in a group stage and not qualify for the knock outs, an “injustice” according to a tearful Higuain. Galatasaray, for instance, went through with 7, Zenit with 6.
And don’t forget that while this new Napoli team appeared to come together quite quickly, a bit like Tottenham in the Premier League, they sold their best player in the summer and, after reinvesting all the proceeds, have had several new faces to integrate, many of them new to the league and new to the system Benitez is introducing.
It’ll take time to find greater consistency. For now, Napoli are up and down a bit like o tram a muro - the tram on a wall. Will they rise again when they entertain Clarence Seedorf’s Milan on Saturday evening? Find out live on BT Sport 2 from 7:45pm.
Serie A Talking points
- Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has told La Repubblica that he will meet FIGC president Giancarlo Abete after a friendly against Spain in March to discuss his future. “We will not go to Brazil with the argument in suspense,” he insisted. The indications are that he will step down after the tournament.
- “Hi. My name’s Mario. I’m a striker.” Back training with the team after five months out with a knee injury, Fiorentina’s summer signing Mario Gomez felt the need to re-introduce himself to coach Vincenzo Montella and his teammates on Wednesday. Incidentally, Fiorentina lost the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final 2-1 to Udinese.
- Bologna signed Ibson, the Corinthians midfielder, with 45 seconds to spare on transfer deadline day. They then forgot to pick him up at the airport, a gaffe that led to the suspension of four directors. Just who is negotiating the sale of Alessandro Diamanti to Guangzhou Evergrande in China where the window is still open is unknown. Bologna, though, need the cash.
- Maxi Lopez won the Derby della Lanterna for Samp. He scored the only goal on the first start of his second stint at the club. How good it must have felt to be making the headlines for something other than his high profile separation from the glamour girl Wanda Nara and the relationship she has struck up with his former Samp teammate Mauro Icardi.
- Unlike Hernanes, Lazio owner Claudio Lotito will not be putting his phone on the mantle-piece as a trophy. Instead of messages of good will, he received “between 50 to 70 to 80 telephone calls from pseudo-fans, in which they asked me to leave and made death threats against me” for going ahead with the sale. One rang during a press conference and was put on loudspeaker.