From the sublime to the ridiculous: How Napoli’s fairytale became a nightmare

Napoli won the 2022/23 Serie A title with some style, but their scudetto defence has been horrendous and they have been eliminated from the Champions League. Where did it all go wrong?

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Napoli achieved a historic Serie A title triumph in the 2022/23 campaign with Luciano Spalletti as coach, demonstrating a perfect balance of defensive strength and attacking flair.

The Partenopei won their third scudetto in history – their first without club legend Diego Maradona – and they finished an incredible 16 points ahead of Lazio in second place. As soon as that season ended, changes off the pitch took place and they have had a significant impact on the Azzurri’s title defence.

Although Kim Min-jae was the only major departure on the pitch, Napoli have looked a shadow of their former selves in 2023/24, and their recent elimination from the Champions League in the round of 16 is perhaps a reflection of how poor this season has been for the Neapolitans.

Napoli players Juan Jesus and Hamed Traore try to close down Fermin Lopez from Barcelona. (@FCBarcelona)

Spalletti and Giuntoli departures impact Napoli

Soon after winning the Serie A title with Napoli, Spalletti stepped down as Partenopei coach, and he was then appointed as boss of the Italy Men’s National Team. He took his coaching staff with him, including athletic trainer Francesco Sinatti, who was one of the reasons the Ciucciarelli were able to stay fit for long periods.

Another huge departure for the Neapolitans was sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli, who joined Juventus. After playing an instrumental part in Carpi miraculously rising from the lower divisions and reaching Serie A, he joined Napoli in 2015. The majority of the scudetto-winning side arrived when he was at the club, and his replacement Mauro Meluso has not impressed as yet.

Despite rumours linking star forwards Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia with moves elsewhere, South Korean defender Kim Min-jae joining Bayern Munich for €50 million was the biggest loss for the squad. Nevertheless, his departure has left a gaping hole at the back.

De Laurentiis made poor choices in coaches and players

Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has often been known to make shrewd decisions, but his choices in coaches and signings recently have been questionable.

He hired Rudi Garcia, who had not coached in Italy since he was at AS Roma in the 2015/16 season, and he had been replaced by Spalletti during that campaign as Giallorossi tactician. De Laurentiis sacked him after 12 rounds of the current campaign and replaced him with Walter Mazzarri.

Mazzarri was also sacked after 12 Serie A matches and the Neapolitans were as low as ninth before being replaced by Slovakia coach Francesco Calzona. Although remnants of that style under Spalletti have returned and Sinatti has also returned as fitness trainer, Napoli have not kept a clean sheet, and they were eliminated 4-2 on aggregate by Barcelona in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. It was a far cry from the thrilling quarter-final run from last season, when they beat Ajax and Liverpool on the way.

Most of the player signings have been forgetful. Natan has been underwhelming in defence, Jens Cajuste has been a flop in midfield, and Jesper Lindstrom has struggled to displace Matteo Politano from the right wing. Winter signings Cyril Ngonge and Hamed Traore have shown flashes of brilliance, but nothing overly outstanding as yet.

Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri leads a training session (@en_sscnapoli)

Could De Laurentiis possibly be downing tools?

When Napoli went bankrupt in the summer of 2004, it was De Laurentiis who reformed the club and invested capital. The Partenopei worked their way up from Serie C1 to Serie A in three years, and they became a regular feature in the European competitions.

Despite winning the Coppa Italia in 2011/12, 2013/14, and 2019/20, the Southern Italians found the Serie A title elusive, finishing second in four seasons, and third on another four occasions. Winning the 2022/23 scudetto with such conviction was the apotheosis of the De Laurentiis era.

After 20 years of continuous investment and financial stability, the 74-year-old made poor choices in trying to replace key personnel from last season. Napoli have provided a horrible title defence and looked deflated in Europe.

It is clear that the 2023/24 is a write-off, but planning for next season is crucial, and the club must assess whether it can remain a threat to the elite from Northern Italy or be content with the success that has already been achieved under the patronage of De Laurentiis.

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