Stuttering Barcelona are blessed that Champions League opponents Napoli are an absolute mess

On Wednesday, Napoli host Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie. The ‘Diego Maradona derby’ should be provoking positive emotions of excitement and celebration for the home fans; instead they’re feeling only fear and trepidation – because their club could hardly be in worse shape right now.

Napoli are ninth in Serie A and onto their third coach of the season. On top of that, president Aurelio De Laurentiis has already confirmed that beloved star striker Victor Osimhen will be sold this summer. And Barca supporters thought that they were having a tough season…

So, what on earth has gone wrong at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona? How did a team toasted throughout Europe last season for their champagne football end up being labelled the worst defending champions in Serie A history? And what can we expect from new Napoli boss Francesco Calzona, who has never previously taken charge of a senior game at club level?

De Laurentiis

During the second half of Saturday’s fortuitous 1-1 draw with Genoa, the Napoli fans began chanting, “De Laurentiis, hear this call: We deserve more!” It was difficult to disagree.

This time last year, the Partenopei were perfectly placed to become the dominant force in Italian football. With the outstanding tactician Luciano Spalletti at the helm of an exciting squad assembled by the incredibly shrewd sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli, Napoli were running away with Serie A and considered by many as the favourites to win the Champions League, particularly after being placed on the ‘easier’ side of the draw for the knockout stage.

Their thrilling European run, which featured stunning routs of Liverpool and Ajax, was surprisingly brought to an end at the quarter-final stage by AC Milan, but Napoli had still made history just by reaching the last eight.

Elimination hardly dampened the mood of the fans, either. They still had the mother of all parties to look forward to, with Napoli closing in on their first Scudetto since 1990 – and just their third overall.

And after Napoli had clinched the league title with a draw with Udinese at the Dacia Arena on May 4, De Laurentiis took to the stage miles and miles away at the Maradona and told the delirious 50,000 fans in attendance who had been watching the game on giant screens that the Scudetto was merely “a starting point”. In a way he was right, but only in the sense that it signalled the beginning of the end.

Luciano Spalletti Napoli 2022-23

Less than 24 hours after the Udinese game, De Laurentiis announced that he had activated the one-year extension clause in Spalletti’s contract. This was news to Spalletti, who made little attempt to hide his disappointment and frustration at not being consulted beforehand.

Within a matter of weeks, he had announced his intention to step down. The Partenopei had played football that journalists and former professionals from all over Europe said would have made Maradona proud, but Spalletti said he needed some time to recover from the stress and strain of delivering a long-overdue Scudetto to a football-mad city.

Naples had waited a long time for that title, but he had too. At 64, he had become the oldest first-time Italian title winner, and said he was worn out. A dream had been realised, a masterpiece completed, so he felt compelled to take a season-long sabbatical.

However, Spalletti returned to work just two months later, appointed Italy’s new coach on August 18, confirming what many had long suspected: Spalletti hadn’t walked away because he needed a break from the game; he was just tired of working with De Laurentiis.

By that stage, Napoli had also lost Giuntoli – to hated rivals Juventus, to make matters worse – and key defender Kim Min-jae, who joined Bayern Munich. De Laurentiis had claimed amid the ecstasy of the title triumph that “the project never stops”, but the fans feared it was already over.

De Laurentiis Garcia

Their hope was that their long-time president would hire a suitably high-profile replacement for Spalletti, one capable of building upon the Scudetto success. A number of names were linked with the vacancy, from proven winners like Antonio Conte and Luis Enrique to exciting young tacticians such as Roberto De Zerbi and Thiago Motta.

De Laurentiis instead hired Rudi Garcia, the Frenchman who had done a decent job at Roma eight years previously but had last been seen getting sacked by Cristiano Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia. It proved a predictably disastrous decision. Garcia was fired on November 14, with Napoli already out of the title race having claimed just 21 points from a possible 36.

Remarkably, his successor has fared even worse. Walter Mazzari claimed just 15 points from his 12 games at the helm – and nobody was in the least bit surprised. It was another ridiculous roll of the dice from De Laurentiis, who clearly hadn’t learned anything from the Garcia gamble by deciding to once again back a coach whose best days were very clearly behind him.

Calzona Napoli

So, will Calzona fare any better? Well, on the plus side, the bar has been set ridiculously low by his two predecessors. But there are legitimate grounds for optimism, not least because he knows Napoli inside out, having first arrived at the club as Maurizio Sarri’s No.2 and then served under both Carlo Ancelotti and Spalletti.

Calzona, thus, knows exactly what he’s getting into, particularly in terms of working under the charismatic but controversial De Laurentiis, the film producer with a rather fitting flair for drama. Indeed, we’re talking about the kind of president that regularly appears in the dressing room to give his players pep talks and his coaches tactical advice.

In this instance, then, Calzona’s familiarity with the inner workings of the club is genuinely a plus point. Furthermore, while he has zero experience as a head coach at club level, he has just guided Slovakia to Euro 2024. However, the fact that he intends to job-share for the next four months is hardly ideal, given Napoli have numerous problems requiring an awful lot of attention.

Kvaratskhelia Napoli

  • The defence just hasn’t been the same since Kim left and has got worse the longer the season has gone on, with Napoli keeping just two clean sheets since the start of November, which can be partially attributed to midfielder Stanislav Lobotka proving nowhere near as effective at protecting the backline as last season.

    It doesn’t help either that it’s already been revealed that Piotr Zielinski will join Inter on a free transfer this summer, prompting pundits and supporters to question his stomach for the fight Napoli now find themselves in to finish in the top four.

    Of course, we also know that Osimhen is leaving too, and there are also fears that mental and physical fatigue would hinder his hopes of finishing the season with a flourish, given he’s only just returned from the Africa Cup of Nations after Nigeria’s heart-breaking loss to Ivory Coast in the final.

    The biggest concern, though, is arguably Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has suffered a dramatic dip in form. The Georgian looks a pale imitation of the wing wizard that drew comparisons to Maradona last season (there were even babies named after him!) – and De Laurentiis being De Laurentiis, he’s not hidden his dissatisfaction with the winger.

    “Since March 2023, the team has had a decline,” he stated. “The star then was Kvaratskhelia, but he didn’t score from March to November. Such a fall from a star can create problems for you.”

    Aurelio De Laurentiis Napoli chairman 04122023The biggest problem has obviously been the president, though, and credit to De Laurentiis, he has taken responsibility for the fact that Napoli have gone from the Scudetto to a shambles in less than a year. However, he cryptically added “the truth has many faces” – an apparent suggestion that he is not the only one to blame for the departure of Spalletti or the subsequent struggles of both Garcia and Mazzarri.

    What’s abundantly clear, though, is that De Laurentiis has blown a glorious opportunity to usher in an era of sustained success that would have rivalled the golden age of Maradona.

    The Diego derby obviously offers a shot at redemption, a chance to salvage the season, and Napoli still have the talent to hurt any team in Europe. Of course, no matter what happens, it won’t change the fact that De Laurentiis has made a mess of a masterpiece.

    Spalletti’s side achieved immortality last season by realising a people’s seemingly impossible dream. But this season has been a nightmare, with Napoli achieving something arguably even more unthinkable by making Barcelona look like a model of stability.


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