Sunday, February 1, 2015

Squad depth gives Napoli control in race for Champions League

The chaff has been separated from the wheat.

Going into the winter break, Serie A arguably had the most competitive race for Champions League qualification in Europe. While Genoa and Sampdoria always felt like long shots - the departure of Manolo Gabbiadani in particular hurting the latter - there seemed genuine reasons to believe that the form of Lazio and Fiorentina could be sustained.

Since the resumption of the league though, Napoli have stolen a march on their rivals. That is, if there were genuine rivals in the first place. It's often forgotten that many predicted the Neopolitan club to be involved in the title race with Juventus and Roma, albeit as outsiders.

The first half of the season was a difficult one for Rafa Benitez's men. Losing the Champions League qualifying playoff to Athletic Bilbao was a bitter pill to swallow. The effects of missing out on Europe's premier competition translated to an inconsistent start to the domestic campaign.

To his credit Benitez stuck to his guns despite growing criticism of the team. With Jose Callejon and Gonzalo Higuain regularly finding the net and the increasingly impressive David Lopez dictating the tempo from the middle of the park, it became clear that Napoli could win against most opposition in the league.

Squad depth has played a crucial role in settling the Gil Azzurri's campaign. Despite the injury-enforced absence of Lorenzo Insigne, Benitez has made the attack click with both Jonathan de Guzman and Dries Mertens contributing in supporting the attacking trio of Higuain, Callejon and captain Marek Hamsik.

At the back, Kalidou Koulibaly has become more consistent as the season has gone on, though the tendency to take unnecessary risks has to be eradicated from his game. The signing of Ivan Strinic adds competition to the left-back slot just as Faouzi Ghoulam returns from Algeria's underwhelming Africa Cup of Nations campaign.

It is upfront though that Napoli have laid a strong marker. The signing of the aforementioned Gabbiadini adds more guile as well as a different angle of attack. The new signing was instrumental in their win at Chievo Verona, using his lethal left foot to get the winner that sends Napoli five points clear in third spot.

With an impressive arsenal of attacking weapons and greater squad depth than the teams below them, it would be no surprise if the gap increased between Napoli and the rest of the league. The fans may well wonder why they couldn't start the league campaign this way, but Champions League qualification is the first priority and as long as Napoli get into the playoffs again there won't be much to complain. Then again, they are only four points behind a stuttering Roma. Maybe, Benitez can guide them straight into the Champions League group stages after all.