When Napoli beat Liverpool back in early October in the Champions League, club president Aurelio De Laurentiis remarked that manager Carlo Ancelotti was “worthy of his reputation.”
Lorenzo Insigne’s 89th minute goal gave the Partenopei a deserved win over Jurgen Klopp’s men and showed Napoli’s fans, who may still have been pining for the departed Maurizio Sarri, that Ancelotti was here to do serious business.
The 1-0 score line flattered the Reds, as Ancelotti’s tactical master class provided the platform for Napoli’s most compelling performance of the season to that point.
It also provided the club with a much-needed psychological boost, coming as it did just days after they had suffered defeat at the hands of a Ronaldo inspired Juventus in Turin.
Napoli haven’t looked back since and are currently on a run of 12 Serie A and Champions League games without defeat – the latest being their 4-0 demolition of Frosinone on Saturday.
That leaves the Partenopei second in the league, eight points behind Juventus – but crucially six points clear of Inter Milan in third.
That gap is important because being the best of the rest in Italy and becoming Champions League regulars are the most that can be fairly expected of Napoli given the Old Lady’s stranglehold on the Italian game.
Replacing the hugely popular Sarri, who had guided the Neapolitans to three top three finishes on the bounce and to a record points tally of 91 last season, was never going to be easy for Ancelotti.
But after an underwhelming start in which they lost two of their first seven Serie A games and dropped points away to Crvena Zvezda in their opening Champions League fixture, he now appears to have his feet firmly under the table.
Indeed, that Group C victory over Klopp’s charges could be seen as something of a turning point.
No matter what their reputation, every manager has to win and then retain the trust of the dressing room. Critically for Ancelotti, beating Liverpool seems to have secured him that buy-in.
Match-winner Insigne said as much in the aftermath of that game: “More and more, this is becoming Ancelotti’s Napoli. He’s changed a lot, and we’re following him.”
Carletto has certainly put his stamp on his new side. Gone is Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation, replaced by Ancelotti’s favoured, flexible 4-4-2.
Marek Hamsik and Allan patrol the middle of the park, with the Slovak tending to sit a little deeper than his Brazilian colleague, as Piotr Zielinski occupies an inside left role to allow full back Mario Rui bomb on.
On the right, Spaniard Jose Callejon plays deeper and wider than under Sarri, hugging the touchline in a chalk on his boots type role.
Up front, Insigne now partners Dries Mertens in a productive little man, little man tandem.
The Italian striker has been in brilliant form this season – scoring 10 times in his 19 domestic and European appearances.
Clearly relishing the new central attacking role Ancelotti has assigned him, he’s only one goal behind his tally for the whole of last season.
Overall, the Partenopei still play compelling football. But they are perhaps more measured and patient than under Sarri.
And in terms of points on the board, Ancelotti’s side have amassed just three points less than the 38 they had earned this time last season – suggesting that the new man’s changes haven’t undermined Napoli’s effectiveness.
But where he might just trump his predecessor is in the Champions League – a competition he has won three times as a manager. Last term, Insigne and co failed to get beyond the group stages.
But on Tuesday night, if they avoid defeat at Anfield, or indeed score and lose by a single goal, they will progress at the expense of their highly rated hosts.
Ancelotti outfoxed Klopp at the Sao Paolo back in October, surprising the visitors by tweaking his formation (deploying three centre halves to marshal Salah, Firmino and Mane) and overloading and outnumbering the Reds with a fluid midfield five.
The success of his plan, brilliantly illustrating his enduring flexibility and tactical insight, won the day and the belief of his players.
More of the same this week and a place in the last 16 from what was a very tough group will represent an impressive six month return for the legendary Italian schemer.