Are Carlo Ancelotti and Napoli losing steam?
Background image: Napuliker, CC BY 3.0
Juventus’ eight consecutive seasons of reigning supreme in the Serie A has not come unchallenged. Napoli has run the Zebras close in the last few campaigns but always seem to come up empty-handed. Gli Azzurri have stayed consistent in the fight under different managers. Carlo Ancelotti came in two seasons ago, expecting to go one better than Maurizio Sarri, who had given up the fight after coming ever so close.
The former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich coach won everywhere he went. Napoli was not supposed to be an exception. Unfortunately, he is in town at a time the terrain has changed. The Bianconeri now hold sway and have the league on lockdown. Despite Napoli's best efforts last term, the perennial champions prevailed yet again.
In the end, poor head-to-head results against other top-four teams Juventus, Atalanta and Inter cost Napoli dearly in the title race. Losing 12 points against the three sides in home and away matches led to a 79-point finish at the end of the campaign - as Juve triumphed with 90, six of them collected from Napoli.
A reaction was expected from Ancelotti and his team this time around, the 60-year-old having fully settled down at the club. Also, with the reigning champions adjusting to life under new boss Sarri, it was an opportunity for Gli Azzurri to take advantage.
Ancelotti has also had the time to impose his philosophy on the team and bring in new players to beef up weak areas. Headline signings in the summer were made, as Kostas Manolas joined from Roma to bolster the defence while Hirving Lozano was acquired from Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven. The Mexican international was a revelation at the World Cup last year and was a standout player in the Netherlands.
Juventus may have Cristiano Ronaldo but Napoli boasts of the Serie A's best centre-back, Kalidou Koulibaly, and some of the best forwards in the division. That includes captain Lorenzo Insigne who was linked with a move to Liverpool in the summer and also Dries Mertens who recently surpassed Diego Maradona's goal tally for the club.
So the side is not lacking quality. And when such a squad is led by a man that has been there, done that and won serially, it should be a winning combination. Yet, the team has huffed and puffed this season and remains far from lifting a trophy anytime soon.
A last-minute Koulibaly own goal against Juventus earlier in the campaign when the two sides squared up signalled what was to come. While the Old Lady remains at the top, the Naples-based side is struggling to keep up with the competition. The likes of Inter, Roma, Atalanta and Lazio are now in front of the queue for a top-four finish. Sitting in seventh-place on the table at the moment, even Cagliari have done better.
Suddenly, Ancelotti and his team appear to have lost their steam. It is still early in the season, but the current state of things suggests Napoli have a huge mountain to climb this term. No longer is Napoli the second-best team in the land. Instead of fighting for the title, it's a battle to secure Champions League football next season.
Moving forward, it will take a huge improvement while expecting all of Roma, Atalanta and Lazio to slow down in order to stem the current tide. Securing a top-four place is something Ancelotti can pull off given his experience. But suffice to say that will be less than Napoli fans and the club's hierarchy expected when the season began.
For a club that has waited almost three decades for another league title, it now appears to be getting further away. Club president Aurelio De Laurentiis has demonstrated his patience with managers in recent times as long as they stayed alive in the title race. He may be considering following Bayern Munich executives' example if things get worse or fail to improve in the coming weeks or at season's end.