Do Napoli have what it takes to remain at the top of Serie A?
The Serie A title race has been as interesting as it has been over the past decade. In a league where Juventus were getting far too comfortable thanks to their yearly dominance, this time around though we have several teams that are decidedly up for the title race.
Inter Milan, Juventus, AS Roma and Napoli appear to be the biggest candidates to take home the league trophy this season, although Lazio might have something to say if they have a strong performance in the second half of the season. But out of those five teams, if there is one team that could fall out of the race, that's Napoli.
It might be a bit surprising to write that because they have been very good during the first half of the season and actually sit at the top of the standings after 18 matches. But at the same time, they have a fair share of problems that could make them fall out of the race as the season goes on. Just as it has been the case over the past few years. Napoli look like they could be title contenders year in and year out, but they always fall short on their quest, and it seems they remain one step below Juventus and AS Roma. Things looked different early on, but there is a high chance they revert back to "normal" in the second part of the campaign.
First of all, Napoli's Achilles Heel this season has been their defence. Even though the numbers might not show it since they have conceded just 13 goals and have just one loss from 18 games, it is not a secret that Napoli could use a few more pieces at the back. Kalidou Koulibaly is a capable centre-back on the verge of becoming a world-class player, but he needs a capable partner. Neither Raul Albiol nor Vlad Chiriches seems to fit the bill. They could also use another goalkeeper since Pepe Reina is on the downside of his career, and they need an urgent solution for the left-back role due to Faouzi Ghoulam's knee injury. Christian Maggio and Mario Rui have been filling in on his absence, but they definitively find a better alternative if they are willing to spend.
They also have a few problems as we move forward up the pitch. The trio of Jorginho, Allan, and Marek Hamsik has been playing regularly in midfield, but what would happen if any of these three gets injured? Piotr Zielinski can be a capable option off the bench, but the rest of the squad could use some quality. Someone like Mateo Kovavic or Ander Herrera, for instance, would improve the side considerably.
Their attacking line must be one of the most prolific ones in Europe, but there is an excessive dependence on what Jose Maria Callejon, Dries Mertens, and Lorenzo Insigne can do. The latter missed a few games injured of late, and there is no question his absence was felt. Other contending teams have viable options so a talented attack is necessary to contend in Italy. But the depth might end up being the difference.
For instance, Juventus have Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, but Mario Mandzukic, Douglas Costa, Federico Bernardeschi and Juan Cuadrado can fill any absence of the two aforementioned players. AS Roma have Edin Dezko as their top forward, but Diego Perotti has been enjoying a great season and Stephan El Shaarawy needs to be accounted as well. Inter have a dependency on Mauro Icardi, but Ivan Perisic has been excellent of late. Napoli has Insigne, Mertens and Callejon, but they don't possess a viable replacement option on the bench. That's definitively an area where they could try to improve during the upcoming January transfer window.
It is worth noting that I do not believe that Napoli will be out of the title race. In fact, they have a decent chance to remain in the hunt for the Serie A crown for the remainder of the campaign. But without question, they have far more shortcomings than the teams that they will have to fight against. Even though a third- or fourth-place finish might look like a disappointment considering they lead the league midway into the campaign, it wouldn't be bad by any means. It would solidify their status as one of the best teams in Italy. But at the same time, it would also show management that the team needs an extra something to fight against Juventus and Roma for the title.
They are very good right now. But the lack of a star player on defence, their absence of depth in midfield, and the excessive dependence on their star attacking trio might end up hurting Napoli. Just like it has been the case over the past few years.