x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rafa Benitez happy trading places at Napoli

The new Napoli coach has been given plenty of cash to spend, and new signings Reina and Higuain can lead the way, writes Ian Hawkey.

Napoli's Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain.
Napoli's Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain.

When Napoli played Arsenal in London, earlier this month, at the Emirates Cup tournament used to gauge pre-season preparations, the visitors endured plenty of jeering from the Arsenal loyalists. Most of it was reserved for Napoli's new coach Rafa Benitez, some of it for the new goalkeeper Pepe Reina and a few boos for the new striker Gonzalo Higuain.

Benitez is used to that in the English capital. His work with Liverpool over six years in the Premier League means he is so strongly associated with the Anfield club that elsewhere in England he will always be a rival, a perception which coloured the period, last season, after he was appointed as the stop-gap "interim manager" at Chelsea.

Reina's Anfield past - eight years there - explains why he was singled out. As for Higuain, envy informed the animosity. The striker had been close to joining Arsenal, in July, from Real Madrid, before Napoli clinched the deal.

At the San Paolo tomorrow, all three men, and several others new to Italian football and to the unique city they now call home, will hear something altogether more encouraging as they line up against Bologna. Napoli's stadium may be a little worn, old-fashioned, but its passions are rousing for those it takes to its heart.

The place might just suit Benitez, who made his excellent reputation as a coach at Valencia, guided them to two underdog Spanish titles in the face of the economic, historical and metropolitan might of Madrid and Barcelona. And he might find aspects of Napoli's strong regional pride reminiscent of Liverpool, whom he guided to two Uefa Champions League finals, winning one of them.

What he will hope is that his second adventure in Serie A is more enduring and happier than his first. "I have missed Italy," Benitez said when Napoli decided the caretaker coach who had just taken Chelsea to victory in the Europa League would be the better-than-caretaker successor to Walter Mazzarri on their bench.

What Benitez has not missed, even when Chelsea fans were making him feel unwelcome, are the tense, rancorous days at Inter Milan in charge of a tired, ageing squad who had just achieved the 2010 treble. Benitez lasted six months there.

The Napoli assignment is different. The club president, Aurelio de Laurentiis, presented Benitez with an equation back in June. He knew Edinson Cavani, the prolific striker, would be leaving but assured the new coach the funds yielded from the sale of Cavani - €64 million (Dh314m) to Paris St Germain - would be Benitez's to reinvest.

Higuain looks a coup, not just because Napoli beat back competition from Arsenal. The Argentinian, 25, struck more than 20 goals a season in three of his six full Liga campaigns with Real Madrid, where he almost always faced stiff competition for a starting berth. He is an intelligent operator, and seems buoyed by the confidence shown in him by Alex Sabella, Argentina's coach. Higuain is Sabella's preferred partner up front for Lionel Messi and has been outscoring Messi in the latest round of qualifiers for the national team.

With the attacking support of Marek Hamsik, leading provider of assists in the last Serie A season; Lorenzo Insigne, the hometown favourite; Goran Pandev, who Benitez knows from his Inter period; and the new arrivals Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens, Napoli have talent and depth in attack.

The Spain internationals Reina and the central defender Raul Albiol add experience at the back, where Benitez will probably make alterations on Mazzari's trademark formation, a back three with wing-backs.

Mazzarri's legacy is a significant one. Napoli, where he took over only two seasons after their promotion from Serie B, reached the knockout stage of the Champions League in 2012; last May's runners-up spot in the league represented the highest finish for the club in 23 years.

De Laurentiis asks of Benitez that his Napoli push simultaneously in the title race and in Europe's senior club tournament. Benitez, no longer carrying the "interim" job description that Chelsea gracelessly hung on him, has the know-how and resources to meet that expectation.





Verona v AC Milan 8pm

Sampdoria v Juventus 10.45pm



Inter v Genoa 8pm

Cagliari v Atalanta 10.45pm

Lazio v Udinese 10.45pm

Livorno v Roma 10.45pm

Napoli v Bologna 10.45pm

Parma v Chievo Verona 10.45pm

Torino v Sassuolo 10.45pm



Fiorentina v Catania 10.45pm