As a wise man once said, if there’s one thing worse than being talked about, it’s not being talked about. Rafael Benitez probably has that line tattooed on the inside of his eyelids.
The Spaniard was back in the headlines in this part of the world during the slow news days of the international break after an interview in which he talked of missing his daughters and wife who still reside on Merseyside. Two and two was added, but four was not the answer as mischief makers saw a chance to fill column inches linking him with a return to Anfield at Brendan Rodgers’ expense.
Benitez himself expressed surprise, but political animal that he is, he was probably more than pleased with the effect. There’s nothing like rumours of interest from other clubs to focus the minds of a club’s hierarchy. Unsurprising then that talk of three-year contract extension at Napoli has been circulating in the last week. Perhaps Rafa’s heart-rending interview not so innocent after all.
Whatever the truth of the matter, there would be plenty of suitors were the Spaniard available. Since leaving Liverpool and struggling at Inter, Benitez re-established his managerial credentials by steering Chelsea to Champions League qualification and a Europa League victory under difficult circumstances. And a move to Napoli saw a third place finish in Serie A and more silverware in the shape of the Coppa Italia.
But talk of a long-term stay in Naples might have been in question when his side lost two of its first three matches this season. In fact, Benitez received a lot of criticism in Italy from fans and media alike back in September when he gave his players time off during the first international break of the season while he returned to Liverpool to visit his wife and daughters. Why on earth was he allowing players rest and why was he leaving his post when there was clearly work to be done?
But since a 1-0 defeat at Udinese on September 21st in their third game of the season, Napoli have been unbeaten in ten league games. It’s a run of form that has seen them climb from tenth to third, putting them well in contention for Italy’s last Champions League qualifying spot. Interestingly, Benitez’s more recent trip to Merseyside during the October international break – on the back of that improved form – drew little comment back in Italy. Results, as ever, give managers more leeway.
That said, third place may have to be the extent of Napoli’s league ambitions – their slow start probably scuppering hopes of a first title since 1989-90. Benitez’s men trail champions Juve and last year’s runners up Roma by eleven and eight points, respectively. Slip ups are possible from either side, but expecting both to collapse is unrealistic.
Nevertheless, Napoli’s response to their early season difficulties has been impressive. And if making up 11 points on Juve is too big an ask, their current form and undoubted quality must give their fans hope of further silverware this season. Napoli eased through into the Europa League knock out stages last week, and given Benitez’s record in the competition, they must be amongst the favourites to lift the trophy.
The club’s resurgence has much to do with the return to form of Gonzalo Higuain, and the consistent excellence of Jose Callejon. The Argentine, suffering an unholy World Cup hangover, failed to score in any of the club’s first seven league games. But the hitman has shaken off that early season torpor, notching seven times in the last six league outings. Meanwhile, his young Spanish strike partner, Callejon, has scored 8 goals in 12 starts, earning a first call up call up to the Spanish national team.
However, defensively Napoli still struggle. That frailty hurt them last season. They scored 77 times, only three fewer than the runaway champions from Turin and five more than Roma. But they conceded 39 – 16 more than Juve and 14 more than the men from the capital. And the trend is being repeated this time around: Juventus have conceded 5, Roma 9, while Benitez’s men have already seen their rear-guard breached on 16 occasions.
On Monday night, Benitez’s men travelled to Sampdoria, who also harbour hopes of securing that vital third spot, played poorly but nicked a draw to stretch their unbeaten run. And with a title tilt no more than a long shot, it’s that race for third that should occupy Napoli for the rest of the season.
Competition for the last Champions League place is fierce this term. Genoa sit fourth but level on points with Benitez’s men, while even Fiorentina, down in eight but just four points behind the Neapolitans, will feel they are in the hunt.
Keeping Napoli’s nose in front of the pack and maintaining their interest in Europe should see that contract extension over the line. And with a little more job security, Montse’s absent heart should grow a little fonder.