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It’s hard to believe that only as far back as April 22, 2018, Napoli beat Juventus 1-0 in Turin to move top of the table with only four games remaining. Maurizio Sarri — himself now in charge at Juve — had broken the club record points total in each of the previous two campaigns, and would do so again in 2017-18, but the Naples men ultimately finished second, albeit with yet another unseen total of 91 points.
Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis surmised that the coach had taken the club as far as it could go. Indeed, he moved to appoint the experienced Carlo Ancelotti before he had even sacked his predecessor, as the architect of the beautiful football seen over the previous three seasons moved on to Chelsea.
In Ancelotti, the owner had captured a man who had won three Champions League trophies, a coach who had earned a reputation as one of the very best during his time at AC Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Bayern Munich. Perhaps it was only to be expected that the team would struggle under the new boss at first — after all, they had spent the last three years being drilled in the ultra-precise methods of Sarri, and Ancelotti would need time to put his own stamp on the side.
That first season ended up being a mixed bag for Napoli. They were unlucky to exit the Champions League group stages on goal difference alone after being drawn alongside both Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool. The Partenopei would also emulate the last three seasons in domestic football by finishing second, albeit with 12 points fewer than in 2017-18.
Ancelotti’s record in cup competitions led to the expectation that Napoli could win the Europa League after their aforementioned Champions League exit, yet they ended up crashing out in the Round of 32 following a defeat to Red Bull Salzburg.
All in all, this was not a bad showing in a season that was always going to be one of transition. Napoli supporters had reason to be optimistic when a summer transfer window saw the highly-rated Hirving “Chucky” Lozano join the attack, and the defense hugely bolstered by the arrival of Kostas Manolas from AS Roma.
Ancelotti, however, started the season with a 4-4-2 formation that watched the opposition attackers waltz through a lightweight pairing of Allan and Fabian Ruiz in the center of the park, as almost all other Italian top-flight teams opt for a three-man midfield. This saw the normally excellent duo of Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly facing undue pressure as the Partenopei conceded seven times in their opening two matches.
A 2-1 defeat to Roma in Week 11 meant that this side had won just three times in league action, and the often-reactionary owner De Laurentiis decided it was time to act. After that weekend loss, he placed the team “in ritiro,” an Italian football tradition for struggling sides that meant the team would spend a week all together in a training retreat in order to work out their problems.
This is the moment where this team would crash and burn in spectacular style.
“We’ve got a match that may allow us to qualify from the group stage in the Champions League,” said Ancelotti the following Monday in his press conference before their match with Red Bull Salzburg. It won’t be easy, though. We’ve seen how difficult it was to win in Salzburg.
“The rest are small details; you may agree or disagree. If you ask me what I think, I will say that I don’t agree with the decision made by the club. However, the coach must be the coach. These are the decisions that are taken by the club.”
Following that match, the squad staged a mutiny, returning to their homes rather than to the specially arranged “ritiro.” In true style, De Laurentiis threatened to bring legal action by issuing a statement via the club’s official website, the problems now out there for the world to see, rather than keeping them in-house.
To make matters worse, the club failed to cancel an open training session in midweek, one that allowed supporters inside the stadium to watch the players make their preparations for the following weekend. They really should have known that fans would be angry about the events of the past week, and the scenes that followed could have been prevented.
It was reported that furious Ultras made ugly scenes outside the stadium, branding the players mercenaries and demanding more respect for the shirt. In the days that followed, several players’ houses were burgled, as it was widely acknowledged that Napoli’s hardcore supporters were making a sinister point while siding with the owner.
Currently sitting in seventh in the league, it’s hard to consider where this team will go from here. A divorce from Ancelotti now seems inevitable, and a rebuild of the squad increasingly likely as the players will unquestionably be rattled by the unsavory scenes that have now become personal.
Many sides across Europe will need to undergo a rebuild every now and then but — in a similar way to Vesuvius, the volcano that looms over Naples — the only way that Napoli can seemingly bring this about is to erupt and raze everything to the ground.