Napoli: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Napoli have proven themselves to be a real handful for the giants of Italian football in recent times. They have finished either second or third in seven of the last 10 Serie A campaigns, twice finishing fifth and once finishing seventh.

However, they have just two Serie A titles to their name, lifting the famous trophy in 1986/87 and 1989/90. Unsurprisingly, the legendary Diego Maradona was key to both of those successes, hitting tallies of 10 and 16 respectively as the club enjoyed their first and last league titles. The iconic Argentine also helped his side lift their only European trophy to date; the 1988/89 UEFA Cup.

The club still hold their adopted son in the highest regard, but are now eager to do the legendary player some justice and win another major trophy without him, either domestically or in Europe. Their most recent cup success came in the 2019/20 Coppa Italia, when they defeated Juventus on penalties after a goalless draw.

Last season was certainly a memorable one, as Luciano Spalleti pushed his team to third spot, just five points behind Inter in second and seven behind champions Milan. They even scored more goals and conceded the same amount as the league winners, with third place bringing Napoli back into the Champions League after a brief spell in the Europa League.

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Napoli undefeated in new campaign

The new season started in superb fashion for Spaletti’s men, who scored nine goals in their opening two matches against Verona and Monza, conceding just twice. This was, however, followed by disappointing draws against Fiorentina and Lecce.

But the club returned to winning ways on Saturday with a 2-1 victory at Lazio, putting Napoli second in the table after five games, two points behind Atalanta. They are joined by champions Milan on three wins and two draws to start the season, with Udinese, Roma and Torino just a point behind.

Up next for the Italian outfit is a huge test against English giants Liverpool in the opening match of the new Champions League campaign, with Stadio Diego Armando Maradona playing host to the highly-anticipated European fixture under the lights.

The pair met as recently as the 2019/20 tournament, where Napoli won the opening match – again in the south of Italy – 2-0, before picking up a point in the reverse fixture at Anfield in a 1-1 draw. It was, however, the Reds who had the last laugh as they topped Group E by a single point, despite Napoli remaining unbeaten.

The Italian side have consistently struggled to get beyond the Champions League Round of 16, so a lengthy run in Europe may just be a real target this time around. But they haven’t been handed an easy Champions League group, with Scottish side Rangers and Dutch outfit Ajax completing Group A.

What has happened at Napoli this summer?

It was very much out with the old, in with the new at Napoli this summer. Club legend Dries Mertens, who scored in both meetings against Liverpool last time out, has made a summer switch to Turkey, with the 35-year-old joining Galatasaray on a free transfer.

Fellow club legend Lorenzo Insigne, 31, has also left on a free transfer. The iconic attacker has joined MLS side Toronto. Veteran goalkeeper David Ospina meanwhile has been moved on to Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia.

Also leaving the south of Italy this summer were fan favourites Kalidou Koulibaly and Fabian Ruiz. The former has signed for Chelsea, with the latter joining Ligue 1 giants PSG. All will certainly be missed by Napoli in their search for success this season.

Whether it be Mertens, Gonzalo Higuain or Edinson Cavani, Napoli have always relied on a goalscorer over the years, and in the current squad it is no different, with the hugely talented Victor Osimhen entrusted with leading the line.

The Nigerian hit 18 goals in all competitions last season, and already has two from his first five games this time around. He does, however, have quite a way to go if he aims to replicate the Napoli heroes of old.

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Cavani once hit astonishing tallies of 33, 33 and 38 in three successive seasons, which was immediately followed by Higuain’s figures of 24, 29 and 38. For good measure, Mertens then followed this up with figures of 34 and 22.

At just 23, Osimhen will no doubt improve with age, but he has already lived up to his record price tag of €70m, which Napoli paid Lille for the striker in 2020. Manchester United were reportedly keen to bring him to Old Trafford this summer, but the Serie A side have kept hold of their lethal asset.

Who should Liverpool be wary of?

Liverpool may just count their lucky stars after the news of Osimhen’s struggles with a muscle injury, with the striker looking likely to miss out on matchday one. There is, however, a new star quickly making a name for himself in Naples in the form of Georgian youngster Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

The 21-year-old, recently signed from Georgian club Dinamo Batumi for €10m, has hit the ground running at his new club in some style, with the winger grabbing four goals and an assist in his first five matches. He is extremely dangerous when cutting in from the left.

Mertens and Insigne meanwhile were quickly replaced, with Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori arriving from Hellas Verona and Sassuolo respectively, both initially on loan deals with options to buy. The former hit 17 league goals last season, with the latter managing 10.

At the back, South Korean Min-jae Kim has been brought in to replace Koulibaly, while in midfield former Fulham man André Zambo Anguissa has joined permanently after an initial loan.

He could be followed by Tottenham Hotspur’s Tanguy Ndombele, who has made a loan switch with an option to buy. Regular first-team midfielder Piotr Zieliński meanwhile is always a threat when creating chances. The Poland international has one goal and two assists in five league matches this season.

Kim, Anguissa and Zieliński were all named in the WhoScored Serie A Team of the Month for August after the team’s strong start to the new campaign.

All will be eager to block Liverpool’s creativity in midfield and going forward, with the likes of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Luis Diaz and new signing Darwin Nunez all eager to kickstart their Champions League campaigns with a bang. But new kid on the block Kvaratskhelia may just have his own ideas.

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Napoli key info

Established: 1926

Stadium: Stadio Diego Armando Maradona

Most appearances: Marek Hamsik – 520

Most goals: Dries Mertens – 148

Nickname: Gli Azzurri (The Blues)