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How Benitez will mould Napoli after Insigne's bad injury
The soul of the team - the only Neapolitan born player in the squad - had a broken knee ligament just when his form reached the top. No one in the team has the same skills, so Benitez will have to adapt to circumstances
by Anthony Pepe
It is often said that a football team has a soul and the nature of that soul has been much debated, some will say it’s the combined history of the club, some point to the fans who remain loyal to the team through thick and thin and others will say it’s the local boys who came through the academy and are now first team stalwarts. Personally, I think the fans are always the key aspect to a club’s soul, the other factors depend on the nature of the team; a club like Real Madrid can justly point to their decima (ten Champion’s League trophies) and say that that represents their club, other, less successful teams, like Atalanta or West Ham United in England will point to their youth academy.

Napoli doesn’t have a glittering history laden with trophies, but has always depended on its legion of fanatical supporters. For such a large city with arguably the largest catchment area in Italy its youth development has been lamentable and this is why the supporters attached themselves so quickly to Lorenzo Insigne. This is likely why they were so hard on him when he went through dips in form and why everyone connected to the club has been so happy to see his exhilarating recent resurgence.

While he may have only league goal to his name this year, Higuaín’s return to the score sheet has precisely coincided with Insigne’s growing influence on the team. Callejón may have been scoring all season but he is not a creative player and while Hamšík has clearly improved recently, he is currently nowhere near as influential a player as he can and should be. Insigne has been spraying the ball all over the park with accuracy and vim, dribbling multiple opponents and opening up spaces in opposition defences. Players like Higuaín and Callejón thrive with such service. Unfortunately, just as soon as he had cemented himself as one of Napoli’s key players he has been robbed of the rest of this season by tearing his ACL in his right knee.

This is obviously disastrous for the player and Napoli has happily confirmed that the operation on his knee was a success, but what does this injury mean to a Napoli team who were finally flying after a horrible start to the season? Napoli are unbeaten in five games, have not conceded in three and beat AS Roma in a totally convincing manner; they then beat (an admittedly poor) Fiorentina 1-0 away from home. Napoli can now only rely (until the January window) on two wingers, José María Callejón and Dries Mertens.

Mertens is the only one of the two who plays in a similar style to Insigne, but he prefers to go for the goal rather than make the final pass. There are also two other problems with Mertens: primarily the fact that he has been very sparingly used by coach Benitez this season for the simple reason that he has not yet found his top form since returning from the World Cup; his dribbles and shots are not precise enough to be effective. Secondly, he suffered a horrific clash of heads on international duty, leaving him concussed and he is not yet fit to return to action leaving Napoli, for this weekend at least, with only one recognised winger.

Currently it seems like Benitez will opt for summer signing from Swansea Jonathan de Guzmán on the left wing, but a winger he is not. A player much more comfortable in the middle of the park or in an advanced central role, he has not had many chances yet for Napoli but it can be said that he took those that were given, he has already scored a winning goal in Serie A and a bagged a hat-trick in the Europa League. It’s also possible that he will take Hamšík’s trequartista role with Marek playing on the left, meaning both players will be in roles that they are familiar with.

Juan Camilo Zúñiga may be fit enough to feature and has experience as a winger; Faouzi Ghoulam playing as a left winger has also been mooted by Benitez, a prospect which should terrify Napoli fans as it surely means Miguel Britos slotting in at left back. These questions about how to line the team up with two wingers missing leads us to another question. Where on earth is Michu?

Many Napoli fans would respond with “Who cares?” after his diabolical non-effort against Bilbao in the CL qualification match and after showing nothing in the few chances he has been given. While he still struggles with his ankle, the fact that he did not even appear on the substitute’s bench for Napoli’s Europa League tie with Young Boys spoke volumes for his current standing at the club. Swansea seem to have severed ties with the on-loan player, stating that he will not be recalled in January despite the loss of Wilfried Bony to the Africa Cup of Nations. Benitez is likely to give the player a couple more chances in the first team before abandoning him; Michu has to take them, whether the chance is up front, in midfield or on the wing.

Fellow Spaniard David López was the most criticised of Napoli’s summer signings by the fans but as things stand in mid-November is arguably the second most successful (after the extremely impressive Kalidou Koulibaly). After an underwhelming first month many fears were voiced, a competent second month silenced some doubters, but now he is arguably Napoli’s first choice defensive midfielder, also due in part to Inler’s irregular form.

Now that Inler, Gargano and Jorginho (especially) all seem to be fit and in form, central midfield is, along with the centre of defence and centre forward, an area Benitez can be tranquil about. The visit of a Zdenĕk Zeman team is never tranquil and while Cagliari’s early season form may have faded, Napoli’s much improved defence will have to remain alert if goalkeeper Rafael wants to keep his current run of clean sheets going.

Finally, to return briefly to the idea of a soul, I wrote earlier in the season about the extremely poor attendances Napoli was undergoing at the start of the season (decade low season ticket sales and an average of twenty-six thousand supporters). For a game which doesn’t feature one of Serie A’s ‘big names’, Napoli have already sold out many areas of the pitch and are predicting fifty-odd thousand supporters.

The numbers will surely be boosted by finally playing a game with a normal Sunday 15:00 kick-off time and the recently restructured pricing system with more “popular tickets”, but it is good news none-the-less and one can hope that they will be entertained on Sunday, despite missing the other part of Napoli’s soul, Lorenzo Insigne.

Saturday, November 22 nd, 2014
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