In the December of 2010, Rafa Benitez was removed from his position of Inter Milan manager barely six months into his reign. He had fallen out with club president and owner Massimo Moratti over transfer policy and once you land on the bad side of Moratti, you are only going one way; out of the door.
And so he went, with his Club World Cup trophy a mere decoration to wretched league form and turbulent relationship with the club’s hierarchy which added to a resume that included eventual struggle at Liverpool despite relative success. His reputation had suffered so much that he was cast into the wilderness for nearly two years until he found another position, albeit an interim one, at Chelsea.
Benitez’s path now crosses with Moratti’s once more as Napoli have seen enough from his stay of stability in south London to make him the replacement of Walter Mazzarri, who becomes Moratti’s sixth coach since Benitez started work at the San Siro in June 2010. The Mazzarri era at the San Paolo was one of progress, taking the Partenopei from bottom-half underachievers to the Champions League and Benitez now has a shot at continuing that work, as well as achieving redemption in the surrounds of Serie A.
Benitez is heading to Naples having just triumphed on the continent with the Europa League, in-keeping with the commonly held view that the Spaniard is supremely gifted when it comes to battles with tactics and the smallest detail of rigidity. He is synonymous with well-drilled organisation, perhaps at odds with Mazzarri’s innovation and the audacious abandon of his modified 3-4-3.
One would find it hard to imagine Benitez, a pragmatic devotee to the dual-defensive midfield/ single front-man system, replicating the roaming front-three of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani that terrorised Italy, and then the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Bayern Munich in Europe. Getting used to the normally aloof and obstinate Benitez at the San Paolo is likely to be a gradual process.
That is something, on top of his past failures in Italy with Inter, that club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis has taken into account in handing Benitez just a two year deal. Napoli are in a delicately poised position, Serie A runner-up and Champions League qualifier having just lost their popular coach and likely to lose their best player, 28 goal Cavani, this summer too. De Laurentiis knows this and sees Benitez, having just completed his fire-fighting duty at Stamford Bridge with merits, as a safe pair of hands to steer the ship into the near-future, even if not capable of forming a strategic long-term vision.
The Cavani issue will be the one that presses Benitez the most when he sits down at his desk in Naples. Subject of interest from Manchester City, the Uruguayan is expected to leave with De Laurentiis’s wisely negotiated six-year deal acting as insurance, he will leave for no less than £30 million.
Yet, Benitez is wily enough to be aware that no amount of money can compensate for the loss of a player, with the imposing physique and superb athleticism that is so central to Napoli’s counter-attacking style, with whom a record of 78 goals in 104 games is just scratching at the surface. The ownership have been prudent, recently announcing a sixth year in the black, yet 24 years without a Scudetto and just one trophy in that barren period, last year’s Coppa Italia, dictates they are still a selling club, as last summer’s exit of Lavezzi showed.
Benitez will have some fine players at his disposal, Alessandro Gamberini and co. produced the second best defensive record in Serie A last year, Camilo Zuniga and Christian Maggio patrol the wing-back positions with endless stamina whilst the midfield is driven by the energy of Valon Behrami and the gifted passing vision of Gokhan Inler. In attack, Hamsik has registered 11 goals and 17 assists from his support striker role, it will be welcome news for Benitez that the Slovakian has already committed himself to next year.
Cavani meanwhile is a different story and perhaps one contribution to De Laurentiis’s thinking in bringing in a manager with a proven ability to win trophies is that maybe he can persuade the Uruguayan to stay, incidentally with the chance to achieve the gargantuan act of surpassing Diego Maradona’s club record 118 goals.
If he does, then the film-maker’s gamble will be partially justified almost immediately. If he doesn’t, then the jury will intensify on the coach who comes with the paradox of an impressive C.V and a huge question mark over his head, suspended since his last stint in Italy.
Napoli must give him time to answer those questions, despite the pragmatic culture-shock from the popular adventure of Mazzarri.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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