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[FM21] Glory Hunter Challenge


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I was thinking of running a lower league management exercise as my big FM 2021 game, however my comfort zone is to try my hand at bigger clubs, specifically restoring some semblance of glory to former giants. The Glory Hunter challenge, set up and devised by Doctor Benjy FM on YouTube, was one of my great delights on FM20. It favours the kind of game that I really like to play, and it’s harder than it looks.

Here are the rules:

  • I am given twenty years to complete the challenge.
  • I have to win the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga and French Ligue Un. For good measure I am also tasked with winning the main cup competition in each of these countries.
  • The challenge also demands that I claim at least one Champions League and Europa League during my adventures.
  • Don’t forget the international scene. I have to grab a World Cup and European Championship along the way.

Who to start with? I don’t want to open with a Champions League team, rather opting for a place that offers good prospects and room for improvement. A small transfer budget and a very decent squad would also be nice, thank you. My choice as the opening team is Italy’s Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli, or simply Napoli.

Why them? Well, whilst I enjoy playing in Serie A very much I have never taken on the southern Italian big guns. My favoured picks are the two Milan giants, but been there and done that, and maybe it’s time to have a go at restoring glory to the team that plays in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. As I write the words Etna is erupting on Sicily, and wouldn’t it be nice for the old Pompeii smiter to blow its top at the same time? Er no, I guess it would not, thinking about it.

Another reason for picking them is that for some years they were Juventus’s closest challengers in Serie A. While other teams struggled to get their act together on anything like a consistent basis, the Blues – managed by chain-smokin’ Maurizio Sarri – kept the Old Lady on her toes and at certain moments looked like putting a serious dent in that record of exciting consecutive league titles being amassed in Turin. They didn’t quite manage it, and as the likes of Milan, Inter and Lazio have rejoined the race there’s a perception that Napoli are entering a gentle period of falling off the pace. They finished in seventh place in 2019/20, winning the Coppa Italia to add some gloss to a disappointing league campaign and qualifying for this year’s Europa League.

I would have sacked Gennaro Gattuso off the back of that, and sure enough that’s exactly what they’ve done, replacing Mr ‘Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe s**t’ with a plucky English manager who’s on a personal crusade to win everything that European football has to offer.

What have I got myself into? The first obvious issue is that Napoli may have fallen out of the Champions League and yet they are financed to belong at that level. Only Juve and Inter have a larger wage budget than ourselves, with Roma broadly on the same footing as we are and Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina run along more modest means. For the record, we have a budget of £2,274,899 to squander on a weekly basis, and our committed spending is precisely at that level. The board has made a limited transfer budget of £15,900,720 available to me, about half of what remains in the bank, but obviously it’s meaningless if I don’t open some wriggle room by selling players.

The good news is that the Blues start the game with a pretty good squad. I’ll go into the players in more detail below, but the situation is highly promising albeit with a premium on homegrown talent. The only two squad members who are homegrown within the club are talismanic forward Lorenzo Insigne, and Nikita Contini, our back-up keeper and the subject of an old Elton John ballad. We do meet the Serie A requirement of having eight first team players who were trained in Italy between the ages of 18 – 21 – they are Contini, Alex Meret, Giovanni di Lorenzo, Elseid Hysaj, Insigne, Matteo Politano, Piotr Zielkinski and Andrea Petagna. All the same, the board preference that I sign players from my domestic rivals is a key one, I feel. A stronger Italian presence within the ranks would be good. More former Neapolitans is an ideal. That means scouting the likes of Amadou Diawara, Armando Izzo and Camilo Ciano, otherwise we will be stuck on registering no more than twenty-three players for the first team, and that isn’t ideal.

I start with a staff base that is pretty small. We have six coaches out of a possible nine, so there’s scope to recruit some people here; no Technical Director, Loan Manager, and space to find more scouts. For me, good staff levels – both in terms of numbers and quality – is of paramount importance. There’s work to be done here.

Napoli expect a Champions League qualification place as a bare minimum, which clearly illustrates the club’s outlook. Based on how much we are spaffing on wages I agree that this is a requirement. In the cup competitions they want us to reach the finals of both the Coppa and the Europa League, though these are preferences so a good league finish will probably keep me in the fight.

In terms of tactics I like to play a 4-1-2-3 formation, balancing defence and attack by fielding a dedicated defensive midfielder. In instances where we have to try and overwhelm the opposition we can switch to a 4-2-3-1, sacrificing the DM for a central attacking midfielder. There’s scope within the squad to operate either system. We have Tiemoue Bakayoko, his most recent loan destination after Chelsea squandered nearly £40 million on him back in 2018, who can operate at DM. Fabian and Lobotka are natural fits here also. If we choose to go with an AMC then Mertens – normally an attacking forward – is a happy shadow striker; Macedonian midfielder Eljif Elmas is a perfectly fine alternative choice.

We have some stars. Though I was a big fan of Mohican wearing midfielder Marek Hamsik, who now plies his trade in China, there are some Neapolitans about whom it’s worth being excited. The cause is anchored by elite, hulking centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, a Senegalese international who you know must be all right thanks to his perpetual link with Manchester United. The side’s vice-captain and a team leader, ‘Kouli’ is good enough to be picked without any reservation. During their ‘challenging’ years Napoli’s excitement levels were piqued by forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, still here and as potent as ever. Before my arrival the club lavished £64 million on Lille’s Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen, who will expect plenty of playing time. Polish advanced playmaker Piotr Zielinski is an excellent central midfielder, possessing the kind of silky passing talent that should make him essential within a set-up that requires us to move the ball quickly and with fluidity.

There’s talent available at the San Paolo, no doubt there, but questions also. The main one is what to do with the large group of strikers, which is trimmable and probably my best opportunity to cut into the heavy salary spend. Both Fernando Llorente (35 years old, earning £67,000 per week as an impact sub) and Andrea Petagna (25, £59k per week, only signed this year for £10.5 million) are transfer listed. I’m tempted to keep the latter if I can find a new home for Llorente, but the really interesting one is Arkadiusz Milik. The Pole earns £81k and is in the last year of his contract. According to Cristiano Giuntoli, he has absolutely no interest in signing a new deal with us, so it might be in our interests to cut our losses while he has some resale value. Sevilla want him. Added to the mix is the fact that I have never personally managed Milik in previous games, but when I’ve seen him move to a rival the poacher has done precious little, like a less handsome and non-scoring Giroud, and though he has a decent goals haul in his time with us perhaps we ought to part ways now.

Other potential targets for the transfer list are:

  • Kevin Malcuit – 29 year old French right-back who is currently the third choice for his position. Though he can play further forward on his flank, he isn’t a natural and behind Politano we could use the money to snap up an attacking right winger.
  • Amir Rrahmani – behind the two first choices at centre back (Koulibaly and Manolas) the quality dips sharply. This fellow is a Kosovan international, 26, who looks decent enough but potentially sellable if I can find an Italian alternative. He’s one of the Blues’ foreign contingent, which is larger than I’m ideally comfortable with.
  • Mario Rui or Faouzi Ghoulam – our two picks at left-back aren’t especially awe-inspiring, and again there’s the scope to bring in a homegrown player if I can get rid of one of these. Both earn big bucks with little justification, from what I can see.
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Pre-Season 2020

The first thing to do is some work on improving Napoli’s coaching team. We have a very good goalkeeping trainer in Alessandro Nista, but Valerio Fiori brings the side down and I agree mutual release terms with him. He’s replaced with Des McAleenan, an Irishman who currently works with the Colombian national team. To make up the shortfall of coaches, I sign Mainz 05’s Benjamin Hoffmann because of his attacking prowess, Ivan Carminati from Zenit (fitness and tactical) and Ricky Sbragia (defending) on a free. There’s still no training area where we are Serie A’s best, but we are now near the top at least. It irritates me that Juve have replaced a number of their coaches, leaving several very good personnel available for gratis, yet because of the rivalry between the clubs they have no interest of working in the San Paolo.

Elsewhere, French physio Jean-Georges Cellier replaces Vincenzo Longobardi, and we steadily fill out the open positions with recommended personnel.

Fernando Llorente is the first player to leave on my watch. The former Tottenham second stringer is sitting here on fat wages and little chance of playing, so a deal is quickly worked out for him to play his twilight years at Wolverhampton. £425k sounds like a negligible fee, but the guy’s 35 and removing him from the club’s groaning salary bill is a major plus. Arkadiusz Milik is next. Unwilling to sign a new contract and not in my good books because I’m not into poachers, he agrees an £8.5 million deal to join Spurs. The board aren’t happy with this. His value jumps due to the fact he’s agreed a five year contract, but we weren’t ever going to get much more than ten million for him and again, wiping his wages from the budget matters.

Their departures open the possibility that I can make a couple of signings. A back-up player for the right wing is the one significant gap within the squad. Right-back Kevin Malcuit can play there, but surely we can do better than that. Given that I really want to boost the team’s Italian presence it boils down to two choices – Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi, or Riccardo Orsolini from Bologna. I go for the latter. He’s younger, at 23, and I had a good time with him in an FM 2020 save. He joins for £18.5 million.

I identify a good alternative centre-back as a priority. In one of our pre-season matches we lose 3-2 to Sampdoria, featuring a second-half collapse, and a defining factor has to be replacing Manolas and Koulibaly with Maksimovic and Rrahmani. Not good enough, indeed a little bit scary. Armando Izzo is the player I want. Currently with Torino, he’s a cut above our existing choices and as a former Neapolitan he will add to the slim ranks of ‘trained at the club’ homegrown players. It’s a relatively cheap deal. £11 million is enough, not bad for a 28 year old ball playing defender who has three Italian caps to his name.

Izzo’s arrival means there is no longer any need to retain Amir Rrahmani, a Kosovan-Albanian who looks to me like the definition of bang average. He leaves for Lyon in an £8.25 million deal. Kevin Malcuit is the next to go. The Blues are well stocked for right-sided full-backs so the Frenchman is surplus to requirements. Ajax produce the £7 million needed to end our association with him.

With some money left in the bank I look next at left-back. Mario Rui and Faouzi Ghoulam are the existing choices. Neither inspire awe and both players are earning fat wads of cash that far outstrip their abilities. Algerian Ghoulam, taking home £78,000 per week as a fringe player, is the identified one to lose. At the time of writing, just ahead of the season opener, he’s agreeing terms with Ajax and should be leaving shortly. It won’t produce a windfall, £3.3 million with several clauses thrown in, but as always I need to think about how much we are lavishing on wages.

The player I want to bring in is Alex Grimaldo. There are no Italians who (i) are good enough (ii) are affordable. Luca Pellegrini is probably the best of the choices out there, a young Juventus player who’s out on loan, and at this stage I have no idea whether the trade of players between us is an anathema, in the way that Manchester United and Liverpool refuse to deal with each other. So Grimaldo then, a former Barcelona youth player whose reputation at Benfica has steadily grown. 24 years old and installed as the first choice left-back, Grimaldo costs us £23.5 million and will hopefully seal his place in the side for some years to come.

If no further transfer action takes places then I’ll be happy enough. Gaps have been identified and filled, and with the new recruits installed we’re looking in a pretty healthy place, I feel. Here in a simple table format is how the squad stacks up:

522242964_Napolisquad2020.jpg.22eb4c5320d8b311a87d52edc7ffb801.jpg

In a neutral Milanese stadium picked as our base for pre-season we dispatch Chievo Verona 3-0. The game features a fantastic incisive strike from Victor Osimhen, who looks confident and deadly when presented with chances, a really promising acquisition. The only downside of this one is a hamstring strain incurred by Insigne that will remove him for much of the run of friendlies. This game is followed by the Sampdoria debacle. We go 2-0 up and everything’s looking good, only for a combination of clumsiness and defensive mix-ups to gift three easy goals to the opposition. I think the players are a bit unsettled over how angry losing this one makes me. It shouldn’t be happening. Sure it’s a friendly, but the collapse is such a disconcerting thing to witness. We really ought to be keeping the limited Genoese opposition at bay.

At the end of August, we produce a 1-0 victory over VFL Wolfsburg. This is more like it. Osimhen puts us ahead on the cusp of half-time and I use the second period to flex our muscles at the back. The Germans can’t find a way through so I am much more sanguine by the final whistle. We dominate in terms of shots, xG and possession, and the home team predictably air their frustrations by boosting the fouls count.

Another humbling of sorts follow when some sadist includes a visit to Anfield as part of our schedule. Thankfully, there’s little chance that we will face Liverpool again this season. They’re better than us, even as both sides are picking at their rumps with the international break taking place. Unless the opposition foul up their Champions League group and end up dropping into the Europa League this should be our only meeting, and I am tempted to slot them in again for a friendly next summer when hopefully we are an improved team. They beat us 1-0, on paper not a terrible result but there are moments when we are doing all we can to stem the red tide. Scary stuff.

A week before Serie A hostilities begin, we host Benfica, complete with soon-to-be-Blue Grimaldo slotted in at left-back for them. I see the Portuguese giants as roughly at the same level as we are, and it’s vastly encouraging to produce a 2-0 victory. The opposition are reduced to scraps while Politano and Bakayoko produce the goods. A fine performance, with Lozano taking the match ball for being an ever-dangerous threat on our left wing. Orsolini spends the second half on our right and looks really good, comfortable in Napoli blue and scoring, only for the goal to be ruled out for a dubious offside i.e. he was definitely off.

The season will open with the visit of AC Milan, a tough start against a side I have a lot of affection for and who of course can call on the godlike presence of Zlatan. How we perform against them will say a lot about our prospects for the campaign, so I’m hopeful for a good showing.

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Meet the Boys 2020/21

A traditional round-up of the squad as it stands entering the new season…

Goalkeepers

This boils down to a straight choice between Alex Meret (Italian, 23 years old, 1 cap) and David Ospina (Colombian, 32, 106 caps). While the latter is considered to be our first choice, my temptation is to go with Meret as our default starter, as the onetime Arsenal man is steadily pushed towards the exit. In reality there’s little between them, Meret getting the nod because he’s homegrown and younger, and clearly the better longer term prospect. For this season it’s good to have the luxury of two very good keepers from whom to choose. Nikita Contini (Italian, 24, 0 caps) is a distant third choice, but he’s risen through the ranks. The goal as I see it is for Ospina to leave at the end of the year (when he’s entering the last year of his contract), while Meret and Contini form our starter and back-up unit.

Right-Backs

Serbian centre-back Maksimovic can play here, but in reality there are two possible choices. The main man is probably Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Italian, 27, 4 caps), a 2019 signing who has slowly developed to playing at Serie A standard following spells with Lucchese, Reggfina, Matera and Empoli. The coaches have nothing bad to say about him, a defensive wing-back who’s resolute, enjoys a big match and brings technical acumen to his role. Backing him up is Elseid Hysaj (Albanian, 26, 53 caps), now entering his sixth year as a Blue. A fine squad player who can operate in either full-back position and is as fit as they come. Hysaj is wanted by a string of teams. Valued at £5.75 million and in the last year of his contract, my aim is to tie him down to a new deal without offering him anything greater than his existing squad rotation status. Hopefully his love for the team (he’s an Inter supporter – ulp!) will tell.

Left-Backs

This position now belongs to Alex Grimaldo (Spanish, 24, 0 caps), a complete wing-back who I hope will develop into our first choice for years to come. Skilful, technically adroit and almost impossible to be parted from the ball, the only potential black mark is that he is considered to be a high injury risk. Whether this is due to a heavy pre-season run for Benfica or a long-term issue remains to be seen. If it’s the latter then we may come to rely increasingly on Mario Rui (Portuguese, 29, 10 caps), with his Musketeers moustache and a playing style that can appropriately be described as swashbuckling. Like a lower rent Guerreiro, he’s had a good pre-season and he’s very fast. How long he will remain with us is an issue that will be addressed before too long. Real San Sebastian want him, and if they offer a good amount then he’ll be playing on borrowed time.

Centre-Backs

Newly promoted to first team captain, Kalidou Koulibaly (29, Senegalese, 43 caps) is a star player and a rock at the back. Imposing, authoritative and brave, the coaches raise a concern that he doesn’t enjoy big matches, which hopefully won’t develop into a crisis as any team worth its salt would see in him one of the best defenders out there. His regular partner at the back will be Kostas Manolas (Greek, 29, 44 caps), a seasoned international with physical numbers that are excellent. Kostas does everything we could realistically expect from a top ranking central defender, and he’s quick too. Barcelona are sniffing around, and they would need to offer a lot for a player valued at £23 million.

The main back-up is Armando Izzo (Italian, 28, 3 caps), newly reintroduced to the San Paolo after leaving in 2011 and spending his time with Avellino, Genoa and Torino. Rated as an elite centre-back, and thought of as a smart player who displays good reading of the game, I’m really happy to be able to call on him. He’s probably the least flashy acquisition I have made in the summer, but I suspect he will be important. Somewhat further down the ranks, Nikola Maksimovic (Serbian, 28, 26 caps) can operate at right-back as well as in the middle. Physical and tall at 6’ 4”, there’s potentially a lot to like about this tough tackling, no nonsense Serb, however his contract lapses in 2021 and I’m torn about what to do with him. Most likely I’ll offer him a new deal, basically because I wouldn’t want to lose on a free someone I’d far prefer to get money for, but this will depend on the squad status that he requires. A regular starter he is not.

Defensive Midfielders

Two players can operate here; both are rated as regulars, which might present problems. Slightly ahead on the numbers is Tiemoue Bakayoko (French, 26, 1 cap), who’s here on loan from Chelsea. At one point a criminally expensive signing for the Londoners, he played one season before going out on loan hell year after year, and we are his most recent stop. I quite like him, a strong and smart tackler who is interested in signing for us permanently. There’s no optional fee in his contact, and Chelsea are likely to ask for up to £28 million, which is probably about right for his level. Or, if it works out, we could just bring him in on loan again until his contract expires. Alternatively, we can throw our lot in with Diego Demme (German, 28, 1 cap), a leader in the defensive midfield hole who plays with authority and will keep on working forever, much like the Duracell bunny. At 5’ 7” there’s something of the 'Lucas Torreira' about him, however his lack of presence in the air is contrasted with bravery and a consummate team playing ethic.

Central Midfielders

I’m still in two minds whether to add to this group of players, particularly with Inter’s Roberto Gagliardini on the transfer list. What’s staying my hand is a lack of remaining funds and questions over whether we really need him. This is a good unit, spearheaded by Piotr Zielkinski (Polish, 26, 53 caps), an attacking playmaker who has been part of the set-up since 2016. He’s very good, especially in the pass and the killer ball, and there’s potentially an eye for goal here also. An absolute regular in the side since signing from Empoli, his normal partner should be Fabian (Spanish, 24, 6 caps). The perfect complement to Zielinski in his deep lying role, Fabian has scored eight goals in his two years with us and like the Pole has an excellent passing range. A string of suitors is forming an orderly queue for his services, with Manchester United and Barca heading the queue, so I think we will need to be successful if we want to keep him. He’s definitely among the jewels in Napoli’s crown.

Stanislav Lobotka (Slovakian, 25, 24 caps) is another deep lying playmaker who, like Fabian, is entering his third year as a Blue. An experienced international and skilful on the ball, there’s yet potential for him to grow. I especially like his tendency to recycle the ball rather than try and score – he’s poor at finishing but great at passing, so it sounds as though Stan essentially plays to his strengths.  Our young gun is Eljif Elmas (Macedonian, 20, 20 caps), signed for £14.5 million from Fenerbahce back in 2019. Still growing as a player, he’s another great passer and technically highly capable. If we revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation then he is the obvious choice for the central attacking midfielder role. In the middle of the park, he’s best used as a Mezzala. His future prospects suggest that if he works hard and plays his cards right then Eljif may become world class.

Attacking Right Wingers

Our first choice is Matteo Politano (Italian, 27, 5 caps), on loan from Inter with a £17.5 million transfer arranged for next summer. A winger from the Sassuolo production line who impressed on loan both with ourselves and Inter before the latter shelled out £18 million for him, Matteo failed to make an impression for Conte and has been shuffled back to the San Paolo. We hope to offer him permanence and security, this classy and technically gifted inverted winger who is a current member of the Azzurri. He can’t rest on his laurels however. Added to the ranks is Riccardo Orsolini (Italian, 23, 1 cap), who is presently on the fringes of the national team. Back in 2016 Juventus signed him, then loaned him out for three years before finally selling him to Bologna. One year on, after a very fruitful year for the Greyhounds and he’s here, hitting the heights and expected to bear fruits via his pace, determination and ability to dribble past the best of them. I expect him to challenge Matteo and steadily assert his presence within the first team.

Attacking Left Wingers

This is the domain of Lorenzo Insigne (Italian, 29, 34 caps), pretty much Mr Napoli and now celebrating his fifteenth year as a Blue. Blessed with flair and the kind of first touch that can make grown men weep, he’s an important player who has a fantastic affinity with the fans. I suspect I may have made a mistake in stripping him of the captaincy. Normally I don’t like giving the armband to a forward, but he wasn’t happy with my decision and I hope this doesn’t develop into a bigger issue. Another potential concern is his sharing of the role with Hirving Lozano (Mexican, 25, 39 caps). A costly £34 million acquisition from PSV back in 2019, it’s his flexibility that stands out as a real asset alongside his superb agility levels. He can play just as happily out on the right wing, which may be crucial if and when injuries start to bite. The worry is that he expects to play a lot of games, and while we hope to have a big season, remaining in all competitions and offering many appearances, this has the makings of a stroppy maelstrom. Chelsea want him.

Forwards

Traditionally our main man is Dries Mertens (Belgian, 33, 92 caps), now entering the waning years of his career and with two years remaining on his contract. A Neapolitan since 2013, scoring 93 goals in 236 appearances, Dries was a thrilling mainstay during the years when we offered a stiff league challenge to Juventus, and for now his physical levels remain staggeringly high. He also has great technique and, at a pinch, can fill in at left wing or as a shadow striker. The Belgian’s advancing years probably provoked the team’s £64 million splurge on Victor Osimhen (Nigerian, 21, 8 caps). Tearing up the league at Charleroi and Lille, he’s a cracking pressing forward, great at playing himself into prime positions and whippet quick. The coaches are really excited about him, and the expectation is placed on Victor to wrest the starter’s role from Dries eventually.

Of the five strikers we started with I sold Milik and Llorente while retaining Andrea Petagna (Italian, 25, 1 cap). Once upon a time he was a prospect at Milan, before signing for us via spells with Atalanta and a particularly fruitful loan period at SPAL. Some bright spark paid £10.5 million for Andrea and then placed him on the transfer list. He’s better than that, though realistically his status as a fringe player sounds about right. I don’t love target men, basically for their single usage, but he’s a tall unit, can head with the best of them and provides a strong presence up front.

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September 2020

The campaign opens with the visit of AC Milan, one of my personal favourite Serie A teams and that most sleeping of giants. They have started to revive out of their slumber recently, and in Stefano Pioli have stumbled across a manager who’s got them ticking. The Milanese signing policy is impressive, envious even. While Zlatan dominates the headlines, because of course he does, the vast majority of Rossoneri acquisitions have been young guns. They’re a youthful team, the likes of Leao, Saelemaekers and Tonali providing the promise of a fruitful future. As ever, the effort is anchored by Gianluigi Donnarumma, their first choice keeper for five years and somehow only 21. I’m envious.

This is a great gauge of where we are as a team. Meret starts in goal, behind a back four of Di Lorenzo, Manolas, Koulibaly and Grimaldo. Bakayoko is suspended so Demme starts. Zielinski and Fabian are our central midfield, behind a front three of Lozano, Politano and Mertens. Insigne is short of match fitness and makes the bench.

Everything seems to be going brilliantly when Matteo Politano puts us in front after just 34 seconds. A quite lovely passing move sees the winger latch on to a ranged pass from Fabian and putting in a tidy finish. Easy, right? Wrong! Milan go on the attack and quickly put us to the sword in their search for an equaliser. On the half hour mark, the obvious Zlatan nods them back into parity when he heads in a free kick. We go into half-time ever so slightly shell-shocked, threatening to be overrun and struggling to find any fluency.

I’m not happy and I let them know it. We switch to a positive mentality, which reaps rewards straight after the break but not in the right way. Diego Demme slides in to a challenge on Kessie, which earns him a second yellow and reduces us to ten men. There’s nothing else to do but revert to a defensive set-up, switching out Zielinski, Lozano and Grimaldo for Lobotka, Insigne and Rui. They’ve all been rubbish, and with the changes we slowly drag ourselves back into the game. Very late on, Mertens has a golden opportunity that Donnarumma manages to palm away for a corner, which sums up the match. It finishes 1-1, which is possibly the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances.

In the press conference I stand up for Demme, but I’m really disappointed with how things have gone. Anyone can get themselves sent off, but what niggles is that we let Milan gain command of the match too often and too easily. Politano and Fabian did well and the centre-backs were commanding under pressure, but elsewhere it was spectacularly poor. We especially allowed Hakan Calhanoglu to run things in the AMC role, which stands to me as an aberration. In our defence, Milan are a good side. It’s early doors and everyone is having to adjust to a new manager, a new way of playing and several new faces, but we need to improve quickly.

During the week I agree a new contract with Nikola Maksimovic. I’m not especially a fan of his yet would prefer not to lose him on a free at the end of the season. David Ospina is pitched in to start the following weekend, when we travel the length of the country to face Torino. This has all the makings of a banana skin. While there is on paper a quality imbalance between our two sides, Marco Giampaolo can always call on Andrea Belotti, one of Italy’s more consistent forwards in recent seasons. Bakayoko starts in defensive midfield, thanks mainly to Demme’s suspension. Insigne gets the nod on the left wing, earning his first competitive start. Otherwise we are unchanged from the line-up that unimpressed me against Milan.

What a contrast this one becomes. We tear into the Bull from the start and nudge ahead in the first ten minutes when Fabian latches on to Di Lorenzo’s pass, runs beyond the defence and slots beyond Sirigu. The build-up to this one is rather delightful. We aren’t playing with fluidity yet, but the players know to look for a man rather than rifle off a hopeful shot, which leads to lots of passes deep in the opposition half and putting maroon shirted defenders at sixes and sevens. Di Lorenzo is involved again for our second, a cross that Dries Mertens nets into the top corner from close range. It’s a cracking strike. The Belgian has the keeper right in front of him and is closely marked by Bremer, but still once he collects the ball there’s only one outcome.

We continue to punish them in the second half while Torino’s attacking effort never gets started. Bakayoko is doing his job splendidly, marshalling Zaza and Verdi, while Politano gets our third from a Mertens cross. Credit this one to the striker, who makes a solo run deep into the penalty area and has the wherewithal and calmness on the ball to hold it up as his teammates catch up. The victory is capped off by an unlikely goal from Giovanni Di Lorenzo, our hero of the hour. Having created from deep he now advances to pick up Fabian’s pass and launches an unstoppable strike to cap off a great personal effort.

A 4-0 win on the road, granted against lesser opposition but important for building team morale. After Milan I wasn’t sure what to expect from the boys. Could they adapt to how I wanted them to play? Was this going to amount to the briefest of challenges? One big victory does not a season make, obviously, and yet it’s moments like these that make the hard work, the hopes and dreams, looks as though they might pay off. Di Lorenzo is rated as the star man of all Saturday’s fixtures. I take the opportunity to let him know how pleased I am with his performance. He’s delighted.

We’re in the last week of the transfer window. A number of my players are on the radars of other clubs. Barca wants Manolas and Fabian. The latter’s future continues to be a matter of fevered speculation. For my part the Spanish midfielder already looks like an essential member of the group, so if we do sell him then it will need to be for big bucks. That said, the opportunity to recycle any monies generated into an exciting new recruit – Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini heads the list – is on my mind. We may have to move quickly…

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Here's the league table at the end of September. The goals bonanza at Torino has elevated us into third place, a finishing position I’d probably settle for if it was offered to me. I’ll finish this update with the Europa League draw. We are seeded first, alongside the likes of Arsenal, Roma and Spurs, the three sides that have a better coefficient than ourselves. We end up heading Group I, rubbing shoulders with what I would consider to be beatable opposition. The Czech Republic’s Viktoria Plzen are drawn next, then Midtyylland and Cyprus’s Omonoia follow. If we can’t navigate through this lot then I probably have no right to call myself a glory hunter.

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October 2020

The close of the transfer window is imminent. Before that happens we are entertaining Fiorentina at the San Paolo. This has the potential to be tough. In my mind il Viola traditionally sit in that gap between the front runners and mid-table, never quite threatening the top but always worthy of respect. There was a time when all this changed. In the early part of this century liquidation very nearly wiped them out of existence. They were reprieved by being allowed to claw their way back from the old Serie C2 level, which made for a fascinating experience with them on (what used to be) Championship Manager. Despite scrabbling the pennies together Firenze were nevertheless an obvious big fish in their small pond and even retained the likes of Italian international Angelo di Livio to help them climb their way back towards the top.

That’s long in the past now and the team is back where it surely belongs, not winning very much (they made the Italian Cup final in 2014) and sporting perhaps my favourite of all club strips. Honestly, it isn’t easy to get away with violet. These days they can call on the aging services of Franck Ribery, now 37 and earning one last big pay day before moaning his way towards retirement. Midfielder Gaetano Castrovilli is on our shortlist, and former Milan star Giacomo Bonaventura is now here. Their biggest name is out on loan, Federico Chiesa with the Old Lady ahead of a permanent transfer in the summer.

For our part, David Ospina is the only casualty. He’s out with a thigh strain, which will probably take him off the radar for the month and gives Alex Meret an opportunity to shine. As you will be aware, Meret is my way for the future, a keeper with limitless potential.

We win 4-0. All our goals come in the first half, braces for Dries Mertens and Fabian (who I am beginning to think of as the De Bruyne of Serie A) as we simply overrun them. There’s an especially fine debut for Riccardo Orsolini, who comes on for the injured Politano (nothing serious) and makes two assists, but the match ball clearly belongs to Fabian. Everywhere at once, enterprising and capable of doing something exciting whenever he’s on the ball, the Spaniard must be the subject of Viola coach Prandelli’s nightmares. The virtuosity of our first half play is so emphatic that we can shift down a few gears after the break, happily holding the opposition at bay while keeping possession.

I’m nervous about the last passages of the transfer window. The orderly queue for Fabian’s signature grows, and while I figure we could get a big fee for him my sense is that he’s pretty much irreplaceable. Who can come in and do the kind of job that he does? Fortunately the midfielder isn’t in a rush to leave and the offers never arise, indeed it turns out to be the quietest of windows closing. That’s fine with me. Marseille make a £3.4 million offer for Elseid Hysaj, but I’m not inclined to let him go and the matter ends there. The Albanian is in the last year of his contract and a new deal flies in his direction.

After the clicky fun of the international break we are off to Renato Dall’Ara to face Bologna. Close to the foot of the division we come into this one as favourites, which we underline in the thirty-ninth minute when Mertens’s free kick is volleyed in by Piotr Zielinski. After the break De Silvestri concedes a penalty for the home team when he puts in an illegal challenge on pocket rocket Insigne. An opportunity to put the game out of sight, but Mertens shoots wide and 1-0 it remains. As the players wilt and I’m forced to order an increasingly cautious approach, Barrow scores for Bologna but it’s clearly offside, and we emerge with three points in the bag. Not the best or most memorable performance, indeed we look tired and disinterested for long swathes, but it’s a win.

Viktoria Plzen of the Czech First Division are seen as the second strongest members of our Europa League group. It might be a good thing, to get the draw at Stadion Mesta Pizne out of the way early. A sunny evening, watched by around 12,000, sees us put out a massively changed eleven. Osimhen and Izzo get their full debuts for the side. Only Meret and Koulibaly of the regular line-up live to fight this one. We rush out to a quick 3-0 lead, a hat-trick for Hirving Lozano who pulls every trick out of what emerges as a thick book to put us in complete control. On the opposite flank Orsolini tries to emulate the Mexican’s brilliance with some showboating, but desperate long shots are often exposed as, well, as desperate long shots and there’s no need for him to try and earn his money in this way. Though Lozano will no doubt capture the headlines it’s a terrific team performance, as we see that 3-0 cushion through to the end of the game.

Back in Italy, where we are hosting Spezia Calcio on Sunday. The opposition are not only newly promoted from Serie B, but I also believe this is their first ever stay in the top flight. Digging a little deeper into their history and it seems their supporters are lucky to have a club at all. After declaring bankruptcy in 2008, they were refounded as a Serie D team and have been climbing steadily up the ranks ever since. They are currently ninth after victories over Crotone and Udinese, however my expectation is that we will win here rather soundly. It isn’t as though I am devoid of romantic sentiments for a little team that’s living the dream, however the hard reality is that we aren’t here to do them any favours.

Attendances at the San Paolo are rarely great. It’s a big and impressive edifice, iconic really, but like much of this city it could use some tender loving care. We rarely come close to hitting the ground’s 55,000 capacity, and perhaps it’s with this in mind that the board uses this occasion to organise a Fan Day. More than 41,000 Neapolitans show up, a good day, and they’re treated to a 3-0 romp. A first half during which we dominate without ever capitalising finally culminates in Kostas Manolas’s headed goal shortly before the whistle. After the break Tiemoue Bakayoko and Matteo Politano add strikes of their own, the latter named Man of the Match after being endlessly creative on the right wing. Only Mertens ends with a rating below 7.0, which shows the focus of the visitors’ attentions. As for Spezia’s efforts, they’re restricted to three off-target shots, which I think is broadly reflective of the difference in quality between the teams.

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A winning October leaves us at the top of Serie A by the month’s end. Only Milan, who robbed us of those two points in the season’s first game and have produced an identical record, are keeping pace with us. Things are going well, and I can tell that they are because in press conferences the media types aren’t treating everything I say like verbal poison and are now politely indifferent. That’s progress.

One more tie to complete before we enter November, and that’s a home game against Football Club Midtjylland of the Danish Superliga. Their big danger is considered to be Pione Sisto, a 25 year old left winger who has claimed twenty-two caps for the Red and White, but as against Plzen I’m seeing this as an opportunity to field some of the side’s squad players. David Ospina is back in the eleven for this one, and with something to prove, Meret’s presence coinciding with the Blues becoming almost impervious at the back.

As early as the fourth minute Sisto shows his quality when he makes a surging run from the Midtjylland half, only restricted to hitting a weak shot that goes nowhere when he’s surrounded by three defenders. Ten minutes later and we’re ahead. Orsolini cracks off a long effort that thwacks off the post. Lozano is there to collect the loose ball and picks out Victor Osimhen at point blank range, leaving the Nigerian with a simple tap-in to make it 1-0. Lorenzo Insigne, who’s on for the injury doubt Lozano, adds a second before half-time when he volleys in from Hysaj’s cross. Armanda Izzo scores his first goal for us in the seventy-second minute when he heads home from a corner, and the deconstruction of our Danish opposition is complete.

Again, we have managed to attract a good crowd. 43,189 Neapolitans brave the rain to cheer us on, anticipating a sound victory, which is exactly what they get. The only sour note is the visitors’ propensity for violence. Mario Rui comes away with a bruised ankle. It’s a bruised groin for Hirving Lozano. Neither injury is worth more than a day or two of rest, but the well of players to pick from isn’t endless and I could do without facing the likes of Steffen Moller, Midtjylland’s uncompromising full-back who is clearly on first name terms with each of his boot’s studs.

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November 2020

Things are going well, though I have this niggling feeling that we are acting as flat track bullies so far, reliably crushing underfoot the teams we should be beating but coming up a little short against reasonable opposition e.g., AC Milan. We will get another opportunity to see how we are progressing when we travel to Rome to face Lazio in November, otherwise it’s another raft of sides that we ought to overcome. When will complacency become an issue?

The board are happy with my work, conferring a B grade on me while expressing their dissatisfaction over some of the lower-than-expected fees I have accepted for transfer-listed players. That’s fair to an extent, though I am never prepared to have those I no longer want to be haunting the corridors of the stadium for very long, knowing they’re surplus to requirements and bringing down the morale. In addition is the impact of removing them from the payroll. Napoli have been generous with wages, and I don’t want anyone to be earning the big bucks without making a similar sized contribution.

We kick off November by unusually travelling to somewhere even further away from Italy’s heart than Naples, when we cross to Sardinia to play Cagliari. I remember going on holiday to Sardinia more than a decade ago; what a splendid place, endless beautiful beaches, the capital an unexpected delight as you climbed higher and higher and came across ever older parts of the city.

Most of Serie A’s sixth round has been played by the time we feature on Monday evening. Milan have travelled to Torino and lost 2-1, so the incentive is on us to pull clear with a victory here. I name my best eleven, including Fabian who has just been named the division’s Player of the Month. Our hosts feature Adam Ounas, an Algerian winger who is actually on loan from us; it will be interesting to see what he does, and hopefully he will remember the side on which his bread is buttered. They can also call on Brazilian striker Joao Pedro, who scored eighteen league goals last season, and legendary Uruguayan defender Diego Godin.

Their right-back is a thuggish hulk called Gabriel Zappa, who has the unfortunate job of trying to do a marking job on Lorenzo Insigne. Watching them work against each other is like witnessing a parent try to cope with a wilful toddler, only Insigne happens to be a bloody brilliant footballer, making a monkey of the defender when sending in a beautiful second minute cross for Matteo Politano, which couldn’t be more gift wrapped if the ball had a bow tied around it. Politano scores a second before the break, placed well to collect Zielinski’s pass to beat the offside trap to rocket into Cragno’s top corner.

And that’s about it, a professional and mature evening’s job of work in which only Mertens looks poor, as indeed many would when up against the waning yet formidable powers of Godin. He’ll have many better days, and it doesn’t matter anyway when Politano is in such rich form. The on-loan Inter man is now our leading scorer.

Two home games follow. The first is a Europa League tie against AS Omonoia Nicosia of the Cypriot First Division. They’re managed by Henning Berg, a highly decorated former Premier League defender who won many trophies with Blackburn and Manchester United. It’s fair to say that these are different climes for him. The standard of the opposition is exemplified by team captain Jordi Gomez, a 35 year old Spanish journeyman who can count stays with Swansea, Wigan and Sunderland among his lengthy alma mater.

For much of the first half nothing really happens, then Orsolini’s wayward cross into the box draws a penalty when Ioannou barrels Victor Osimhen over. It isn’t easy to fell a Nigerian beefcake, so the penalty shout is an easy one and Osimhen dispatches his shot into the bottom corner with consummate coolness. He makes it 2-0 shortly before half-time, a better Orsolini cross that he converts efficiently. Omonoia have been racking up the fouls and card count, and when Jordi Gomez is dismissed for a second yellow early in the second half they allow us to wail upon them. There are strikes for Hirving Lozano, Eljif Elmas and Armando Izzo, and a very late reply from Eric Bautheac – the opposition’s one big threat, who we are supposed to be keeping an eye on – dents the margin of victory a little, but by then everyone is thinking about what to have with that night’s pasta dish. Mario Rui is named Man of the Match for his two assists. With three victories we have already qualified from the group.

There’s just two days’ break between this and our next home encounter, which is a date with Sassuolo. The Modena based team, with their black and green strips and lovely nickname of the Watermelon Peel, contain two players I have already considered adding to our ranks – wingers Domenico Berardi and Jeremie Boga – and a midfielder who left in the summer. We really fancied being able to call on the services of Manuel Locatelli, but so did some very big sides and the Italian has bogged off to join Real Madrid’s reserves for a fee of £21 million. Their ranks also boast Maxime Lopez, on loan from Marseille, who I rather enjoyed having in my FM20 Derby side for a little while.

I make the usual appreciative noises about them in my press conference, whether I mean them or not, and wonder what it will be like to come up against a side that arguably punches above their weight and sits neatly in tenth place. The rotation of players – an entirely different eleven has been representing us in Europe – means that we should at least be fresh, with no injuries at all to worry about for now.

With two weeks of international football following this one, 35,800 supporters turn out to witness a routine 2-0 victory. The away side get one shot, a Kaan Ayhan free kick that drifts harmlessly wide of Meret’s goal. We’re ahead after eleven minutes, a routine headed goal from Kostas Manolas from Politano’s corner kick. Early in the second half Di Lorenzo’s cross is bullet-headed beyond the keeper by Lorenzo Insigne, and that’s it. That’s the match. I have a slightly queasy feeling that we have rarely shifted out of second gear here. We haven’t really had to, and that’s fine, but I’d really like to fill the stadium, and this doesn’t seem like the way to do it.

While the boys are off doing what they do, I ponder the form of Dries Mertens. After a flashy start our cult legend of a striker hasn’t thrilled the fans, and I am beginning to wonder when it’s the right time to start fielding Victor Osimhen more often. The Nigerian is playing in the Europa League, enjoying a slow introduction to his new life as a Neapolitan, but he isn’t going to put up with playing second fiddle forever. His country has just put four past South Africa with Osimhen scoring a hat-trick, as though the player is reminding me of his availability and sheer potency.

We have a big test next with Lazio at the Olimpico. Simone Inzaghi leads an experienced group of players that constitute a serious Champions League challenge and that puts them in our sights. Striker Ciro Immobile can score against anyone and is in especially rich form for his country, whilst any manager worth his salt would find room in his side for Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The comparisons I have read in Corriere Dello Sport between the Serb and our own Fabian, as the decisive influence over our match, is a fascinating one.

Before the game Fabian has a moan about wanting a new contract. His concerns seem fair to me and more important is the need to keep him at the top of his game, so he’s quickly offered a deal that will land him an extra fifty grand per week. The match is defined by ill-discipline. We pick up five yellow cards, while the home team have four players booked and Correa dismissed for a vicious elbow in the face of Koulibaly. This happens towards the end of the first half, when we are already a goal to the good thanks to Dries Mertens’s placed shot. But there’s adversity also, with Radu’s rough tackle on Politano removing the winger for what will turn out to be up to a month. Fantastic, our most prolific forward… Down to ten men, there’s little for the self-styled Eagles to do but look for breaks, which they don’t get. By the end both sides are leggy and tired, not the most exciting spectacle for viewers but it does the job where we are concerned.

Alternatives to Politano begin with Riccardo Orsolini, who is now in a position to do exactly the job for which he was signed. Lozano can play on the right as naturally as on the opposite flank, which reduces options on the left and could see Mertens dropping back. At a pinch I could use Zielinski here also, though it isn’t in his comfort zone to operate as a winger. In short, we’re a lesser team for Matteo’s absence.

In midweek we’re off to Cyprus to take on Omonoia. It’s already the case that these fixtures are turning into obligations, but we’re good for a 2-0 win, both goals courtesy of Riccardo Orsolini, who gets to enjoy the start of his sustained spell as our main right winger. He is removed at half-time with a suspected injury, and then shortly into the second half his replacement, Hirving Lozano, also goes off. Fortunately, Orsolini’s troubles are negligible, but the Mexican has incurred a pulled hamstring and will be unavailable for a fortnight. Great.

A battered a bruised set of Blues returns to the San Paolo for the visit of Genoa at the weekend. Currently bottom of the table, with two draws and six defeats on their shabby record, this has the makings of a home banker. The Genoese are captained by Domenico Criscito, to me an Italian playing legend whose twenty-six international caps suggest that things haven’t quite worked out as well for him in real life. They can also call on the services of on-loan Juve winger Marko Pjaca, who has mainly been played up front and to date has done squat for them. This hopefully is not the stage where all that changes.

As it is, we get to see why the team known affectionately as the Old Fool are where they are. The game’s a debacle. The visitors are down to nine men early in the second period, thanks to red cards for Pellegrini and Behrami. There’s not much more we can do but put five past Alberto Paleari, by some distance their best player on the day as it could have been a lot worse. Fabian De Bruyne scores a hat-trick. Piotr Zielinski finds the net, and Lorenzo Insigne adds a goal to his two assists to be awarded a 10.00 personal rating and the match ball. As walkovers go, if these were medieval times and the opposing team was being burned at the stake for religious heresy then it could hardly have been more punishing.

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And that’s November, a month that ends with us opening a five-point lead in Serie A. How long this will last is anyone’s guess. December contains away fixtures at Inter and Atalanta, and Juventus at home, which should make for a more testing period. We are hoping that the recovery time for Politano (up to two weeks) and Lozano (eight days maximum) continues apace.

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December 2020

Napoli made close to a £6 million financial loss in November. Wages are of course the big expense. What we pay is not nearly matched by ticket sales and playing in the Europa League doesn’t help very much either. The financial projection has it that we will end the season £19 million in the red overall, which could have an adverse yet logical effect on how much the club offers me for new players. I’m thinking about how we can improve the situation, perhaps starting with a review of the forty-three Blues who are currently out on loan. Some of these are kids. Others – Adam Ounas at Cagliari, Amin Younes who’s currently with Eintracht Frankfurt – have resale value and continue to drain on our resources. Making it into next year’s Champions League will help also.

Lorenzo Insigne is named Player of the Month. The board are happy with me, conferring an A grade for my work, and our winning ways are having a good effect on squad morale. Twenty of our twenty-four man squad are now on my side, including all the team leaders – Mertens, Koulibaly, Insigne – and that makes for a happy camp. All good. The fine times will hopefully make a positive effect during our testing December schedule.

Before the considerable challenge of Inter we’re at home to Viktoria Plzen. There’s no way we can finish anywhere but at the top of our group, so it’s a case of getting through the game and keeping the players fit. Neither participant seems especially interested in the proceedings, though we’re more than good enough to win without trying too hard. Eljif Elmas opens the scoring, and there’s an incisive brace from Victor Osimhen to produce a breeze of a 3-0 win. Diego Demme doesn’t get booked, which shows how much he cares. Most importantly, we emerge from it unscathed.

Onto Internazionale then, which the fixture kindly gives us a day to recover for. It should be a good time to face Antonio Conte’s title challengers. They’re in thirteenth place, indifferent in Serie A, with a squad of disparate talents that refuses to gel. All the same, a forward line starring Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku is no one’s idea of a joke. Koulibaly and Monalos will have to produce their A-game here.

For long passages of play, this one is a complete snoozer. I would be happy with a draw, particularly if that comes with eleven fit bodies emerging from the field, and for much of it that seems to be exactly what I’m going to get. The Nerazurri turn out with a bank of three centre-backs and three central midfielders, and they’re hard to break down, however it’s equally tough for them to push forward to their two strikers, who too often cut distant, remote figures. In the second half, Di Lorenzo is removed with an injury. Scans will later show the right-back has broken his toe, which will keep him out until mid-January. On the plus side, we produce a winner very late in the game, a culmination of some very positive play when Victor Osimhen emerges from a goalmouth melee with a tap-in effort. Inter, defensively minded and unable to change their ways, produce no reaction.

Would I take the victory at the cost of an important first team player? I would not. Di Lorenzo has been excellent so far, and his is a big loss. All I can do is tell him that his place in the first eleven is assured once he’s returned, which seems to have a positive effect. In his place, the obvious choice is Elseid Hysaj, who’s done a good job for us in the Europa League. Andrea Izzo and Nikola Maksimovic can also play here.

One more group game in the Euros to come, in Denmark as we travel to entertain FC Midtjylland. On the way I am asked to bat away rumours that Stanislav Lobotka could be going to play for Guangzhou in China, which I am happy to do. The Slovak is back in the line-up for this one, and I’m pleased also to be able to place Lozano and Politano on the bench. We will need to give Insigne and Orsolini some relief on the left wing.

As tricky as our selection dilemma might be, Napoli have far too much for the Danes who suffer a 3-0 defeat before their home supporters. Lorenzo Insigne crosses for a Riccardo Orsolini volleyed strike before the break, ahead of the diminutive winger adding one of his own, and before the end Nikola Maksimovic scores from a set-piece. I have the luxury of bringing on Politano and Lozano for the entire second half, giving them some invaluable match practice ahead of the home game against Juventus.

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Along with Arsenal, we are the only Europa League entrants to have won all six matches, and we carry an identical record to the Gunners – nineteen goals scored, one conceded. I’m disappointed about the one, obviously. As a reward for achieving first place we are awarded £913,000. Not a bad bonus, though if we were in the Champions League the windfall would have been worth more than eight times that amount.

Ahead of Juventus, the news filters through that Inter have sacked Conte. I can’t help but feel like I’ve made a small contribution to his downfall. Madonna has been put in temporary charge, perhaps because the team like a prayer, but it turns out to be caretaker manager Armando Madonna. The one they really want to take over is Marcelo Bielsa, which has a worrying ring of common sense about it.

The Old Lady might be nine points behind us, but they’re still a formidable opponent. Any team that can wield Cristiano Ronaldo needs to be respected. They’re without Dybala and Ramsey, and that helps, however we won’t be taking our eyes off the other riches available to Andrea Pirlo. Juve have put Federico Bernardeschi up for sale, at the sort of price - £7.75 million – that we can just about to afford. It’s tempting to add another Italian to bolster our attacking ranks. As we plan for them, I catch the draw for the first knockout round of the Europa League. We’ll be playing Lille in February; they sold Osimhen to us in the summer.

Our black-shirted visitors turn up with an all-star eleven. Szczesny’s in goal, ahead of a back three featuring Chiellini, Bonucci and De Ligt. Alex Sandro and Cuadrado operate as wing-backs while Ronaldo and Chiesa play in the wide forward roles. Their central midfield of Rabiot and Arthur lie in support of striker Morata. They’re a jaw-dropping sight, guided by the coolest manager in world football, however they have made a middling start to the campaign and there has to be a reason for that. From the opening kickoff, we pile into them. That Old Lady defence may be illustrious but their two aging centre-backs make for a ponderous beast. Fabian De Bruyne opens for us in the eleventh minute, cutting through the entire Juve team before unleashing a shot into Szczesny’s far corner. Three minutes later and it’s 2-0. Orsolini’s long ball finds Dries Mertens breaking the offside trap. He does the rest. Piotr Zielinski finds the net just after the half-hour mark and Lorenzo Insigne adds a fourth early in the second period. Juve’s substitute striker finds a reply very late in the game, a consolation that spares none of their blushes. They’ve been shown up here, and for now Football Manager seems very easy.

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A combination of squad registration rules and operating on slender means makes any potential move for Bernardeschi a non-starter. A pity, but maybe it just wasn’t to be. In the meantime, I receive the preview of this year’s youth intake. The signs are not promising. Then again, for such a big club Napoli’s junior coaching is considered to be adequate and our youth recruitment is rated average. Unless by sheer dumb luck a prodigy emerges we will never be growing our own future Maradona. Some work here is needed.

In midweek we’re away to Atalanta, who are currently second in the division. The self-titled Goddess might have crashed out of their Champions League group, but they continue to work as the little team that can, the Parma of their era. I do little to change the side that downed Juve. Politano comes in for Orsolini, whose fitness levels have not recovered fully. Ospina and Osimhen start, as we prepare for a difficult visit.

We needn’t have worried. Fabian puts a defence splitting pass through for Victor Osimhen in the eighteenth minute, the striker sliding the ball beyond Gollini to put us ahead. After the break, Lorenzo Insigne nets a hat-trick that pads out our lead even further and allows me to rotate the side based on fitness. 4-0 doesn’t even flatter us. The home team have their moments, the best a Muriel effort that Ospina parries for a corner, but Alejandro Gomez aside they are surprisingly brittle. It isn’t all good news. Late on Tiemoue Bakayoko is sent off for a second yellow, and before the end Alex Grimaldo picks up a pulled knee ligaments injury that will remove him until after the winter break. All the same, we’re now eight points clear.

Next up are Hellas Verona at home. I’ve earmarked this one for some heavy squad rotation as the same players have run themselves into the ground recently. Their big threat is Nikola Kalinic, the Incredible Hulk of a forward who I chiefly recall for doing very little with Blackburn Rovers. A striker who has the height advantage can cause problems for anyone, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on him. I’m also a bit of a fan of English midfielder Ronaldo Vieira, here on loan from Sampdoria and someone who grew into a figure of authority in my FM20 Derby game.

A messy goalmouth melee from Mario Rui’s corner results in Riccardo Orsolini’s opener. The full-back then enjoys the rarity of a goal direct from his beautifully struck free-kick. But in the second half Verona scare us. Gambian sub Embrina Colley scores for them and we spend the last ten minutes spooked, before a gorgeous chipped effort from Lorenzo Insigne deep into injury time calms our nerves.

Naturally the visitors score from their single on-target opportunity, part of which I put down to fatigue. One more to go, away to Crotone, and then we can enjoy a ten-day break that will carry us into the new year. They’re newly promoted to Serie A, in seventeenth, missing their leader and former Neapolitan Luca Cigarini because of injury. There’s a feeling of us going through the motions by this stage. Everyone seems ready for a break and the Crotonians look happy to defend against us, watched by 6,535 politely interested supporters. Despite maintaining pressure throughout, it appears that we will finish 0-0. Defensively we’re okay, but there’s a leggy predictability about our offensive areas, especially Elmas who is being given the stage to shine and instead vanishes from the action. Only a flurry of late substitutions and Lorenzo Insigne pulling off a wonder goal with about ten minutes remaining spares our blushes. Not a majestic way to finish the season’s first half.

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Despite that, Napoli has opened up a ten-point lead in the table. We look good, a class apart really, with Fabian De Bruyne second in the Serie A form table (behind Roma’s Jordan Veretout) and having dropped two points within the league. As if this isn't enough of a high point, the head coaches of Serie A are polled to vote for their Manager of the Year...

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January 2021

After an uneventful break, we’re back in early January with a home game to play against eleventh-placed Udinese. It’s nearly time for the January transfer window, and a number of my first team players are attracting admiring glances from elsewhere. Here’s a quick look at who’s wanted and what I think (very briefly) of the possibility of them going.

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It should be a heresy to consider letting Mertens go, but on my mind are his high wages, the chance to make a quick buck, his age and the need to bring Osimhen more to the fore. Fabian’s new contract appears to have shooed away his many suitors, but as long as his good form continues I expect the vultures to start circling again before too long.

I name the strongest available eleven for the Friulians, which I shouldn’t require but to my mind they’re a stronger opponent than they probably are in reality. Their captain is Italian forward, Kevin Lasagna, one of a select group of footballers named after food (like former Boro striker Massimo Maccarone). He hasn’t scored once this season, a fact that always worries me. Gerard Deulofeu is also here, on loan from Watford, as is Rolando Mandragora, a much-loved midfielder from my FM20 playing days – seriously, I loved him in fact I affectionately knew him as the Mandragorian, but there’s no love here. He’s on the opposition books. Death to him. A pox on his house. Along with Di Lorenzo, who’s still got up to three weeks of absence, I’ve lost Alex Meret for a week or so, courtesy of a gashed leg sustained. Ospina starts.

This one’s played at half pace, as though everyone is still on holiday in their heads. Luckily for us Udinese aren’t very good. They might line up similarly to Inter, with banks of three centre-backs and midfielders, but the quality isn’t present and when Fabian volleys one in after fourteen minutes there’s the feeling that we can do this without shifting up the gears. Dries Mertens scores from the spot early in the second half when Kalidou Koulibaly is barrelled over during a free kick, before the latter makes it 3-0 with a headed goal, powering over his two markers to drive his shot home. The only real downside is a gashed leg sustained by Politano, which will keep him out for a week.

The transfer window opens. Given how stretched our budgets are my view is that if we get to the end of it with exactly the same players as we have now then I will consider it to have been a successful one.

In the meantime, we have two away games over a few days. The first is against Parma, anchored in the table’s lower half, and showcasing the talents of former Arsenal forward Gervinho. As if demonstrating the old cliché that you can’t win them all, we contrive to draw 0-0, a stilted performance in attack where we pepper Colombi’s goal with shots but never cross the line. Fabian comes closest, a lashed strike from outside the area that crashes off the post, but elsewhere nothing goes right for us. The best opportunity of all might fall to Gervinho. As Parma clear a corner, he’s left on the ball, haring towards our goal with defenders racing to catch up with him. Ospina, alert and advancing from his line to clear the African’s shot, saves our bacon.

Benevento are next. They’re based near to us, so this is a bit like a Neapolitan derby, except their history until very recently was in Italy’s lower reaches and all their rivals are from the country’s hinterland – Avellina, Nocerino, Salernitana, and the like. I like the witch logo on their badge, the fact they’re nicknamed the Sorcerers, the accompanying hope that they won’t conjure anything from this tie. Among their ranks is Roberto Insigne, the younger brother of our own Lorenzo and once upon a time on our books. We set out to attack from the start, to blow them away, make up for the Parma shortfall, and by half-time we’re 3-0 up. Riccardo Orsolini and a Mertens brace have caused the damage. The Sorcerers reply without magic but with plenty of violence, culminating in Bryan Dabo’s second half dismissal for one mucky challenge too many. Victor Osimhen caps off a fine afternoon’s work with a late strike and the emphatic qualities of a 4-0 away win.

Our attention turns now to the Italian Cup, the trophy of which Napoli are the proud custodians. We open with what should be a routine First Round match, against Cittadella, who are one of only two Serie B teams remaining. We’re expected to win with little fuss, though former Blue Gianfranco Zola pops up on the media to warn me about Frank Tsadjout, a Milan forward who’s on loan with the Citta. Di Lorenzo is still about a week away from being able to play in this one. Mario Rui is suspended. I see it as an opportunity to pitch in my Europa League side, the second stringers. Andrea Petagna gets his first start under me, playing as a target man.

It isn’t great. With the visitors happy to spoil and break things up in front of a cavernous, quarter-full stadium we finally score just before half-time, when Petagna’s defence splitter of a pass finds Hirving Lozano piling through on the left, the winger guiding his shot into the top corner. Petagna adds a second of his own after the break to secure the victory. Cittadella rack up one shot on goal, plus the causing of an injury when a clumsy challenge on Grimaldo robs us of his services for two months with a thigh muscle. Due to Mario Rui’s suspension we have to move Hysaj to the left and bring Koulibaly on, which at least makes us even more defensively tight. The Quarter Final produces an infinitely tougher fixture when we will go to the San Siro to take on AC Milan.

From the ridiculous to the sublime. We’re in Milan for the Super Cup Final, in which the cup winners (ourselves) take on serial league victors, Juventus. This time around they have Paulo Dybala back and playing in the striker role, ahead of Cristiano and Chiesa. That’s pretty frightening, however as in our league meeting they’re lumpier than I might have expected. A third minute Koulibaly header that hits the bar defines this one. We have a lot of shots, but Szczesny is at his shot-stopping finest and the woodwork is also on the opposition’s side. That is until about ten minutes before the break, when Riccardo Orsolini collects Zielinski’s assist and fires us into the lead. Juve’s second-half comeback surprisingly amounts to little. Our illustrious rivals seem content to foul and give away free-kicks, one of which nearly gifts us a second when the keeper parries Insigne’s late effort with his fingertips. We emerge with the win, my first trophy as Napoli manager, and a further £1.82 million banked.

Back to the meat and drink of the league, and a journey all the way up the leg of Italy to face Sampdoria. Until late December La Samp were managed by Claudio Ranieri, an appointment that has always struck me as the roll of a dice – will you get the wise old head who wins the Premier League with an unfancied team, or the other Ranieri, who stands on the touchline looking at sea while his team flounders? Sacked with the side bottom, they’ve since thrown their lot in with Roberto D’Aversa, the man responsible for getting Parma promoted. Their leading light is Fabio Quagliarella, now a sprightly 38 and still entrusted with finding the goals. Unlike that other greybeard Zlatan, the aging Italian looks as though he is at last beginning to dry up, which in part explains their problems.

In any event, a decent (on paper) forward line of Quagliarella, Gabbiadini and Candreva is utterly neutralised by our defence as we walk home with a 2-0 win. Kalidou Koulibaly heads past Audero from a corner in the first half; Matteo Politano secures the points midway through the second. A sound, professional effort, only sullied by Bakayoko’s dismissal for a second yellow. It’s the Frenchman’s second sending off this season, two times too many as far as I am concerned.

One of the lovely contrivances of Football Manager scheduling is that it can frequently put together consecutive games against the same team. We now have two lovely away games against AC Milan, for me perhaps the toughest side we have faced this season. I’m at a loss to know exactly why this is. Maybe we’re just especially evenly matched, or possibly the presence of Zlatan as a Joker in the pack gives them a kind of psychological advantage. Certainly, there’s nothing fun about trying to cope with a 39 year old self-appointed king of the world, someone who in a league career spanning 612 games has scored 390 goals. Only Barcelona stands on his record as a failure, and even at the Camp Nou he achieved a better than one-in-two record. His bad times count as anyone else’s wild successes.

In the league match, the Swedish legend doesn’t score, thanks mainly to a man-marking job, yet in an even contest punctuated by good defending from both sides it’s centre-back Simon Kjaer who has the final word. His headed goal, barrelled in from a Hakan corner, makes the difference and hands me my first defeat of the campaign. We finish with the more impressive xG, but what does that matter when it isn’t accompanied with the points? Can we claim to have lost the game but won the argument?

What a joy it is to play them again in the Italian Cup, probably the more important of the two as we are charged with making the final. Once more I am faced to name a very strong line-up, and as before the confrontation is deadly and very, very even. Both sides produce the same number of shots, Mertens doing a better job of testing Donnarumma than Osimhen ever did in the league tie but with nothing to show for it. Regular time finishes 0-0, then there’s the slow burning torture of extra-time, the pleasure of seeing my players run themselves into the ground. Kjaer is excellent for them at the back, and Tonali and Kessie represent nothing less than a red wall ahead of their defence. Penalties ensue. Zlatan of course slots home, but Kessie and Hakan mess their efforts up and we score all four to claim the tie.

A two-legged affair against Udinese is our reward, because of course what we really need is more football amidst a packed schedule. If we get past them then the final will see us take on either Juve or Inter. There’s still time to squeeze out one more league match. A home fixture with Torino seems like a gentle finish to the month after the terrors of Zlatan, and if the action is laboured here then it’s probably a consequence of fatigue. Victor Osimhen makes up for his anonymity at the San Siro by scoring a peach here, and then we have the wherewithal to hold our Turinese visitors at arm’s length. 1-0 will do. The game is watched by 33,116 supporters, around three-fifths of the stadium’s capacity, and that seems like our average for fixtures where the opposition is not illustrious. Still, it’s a disappointment that this isn’t better, considering where we are in the table. If being top of the tree isn’t enough to drag Neapolitans out to support their local side then I don’t know what is. We need their patronage.

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At the end of it all, we have held on to our ten-point lead, opening the sort of buffer zone that will hopefully be enough ultimately to see us cross the line in first place.

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February 2021

Lyon really want Elseid Hysaj and pepper us with transfer bids as the window draws to its close. The Albanian isn’t interested and, with fit and ready full-backs in short supply, neither am I, so I am happy to reject their last offer, which amounts to £13.25 million. Real Hispalis’s effort to pay good money for Andrea Petagna is a different matter. Our third-choice striker isn’t good enough, I feel, and their final offer of £6 million represents a chance to cash in on someone who last appeared against Milan in the league and did precisely nothing. The transfer money’s okay but the saving on his £59k weekly salary is like gold dust to us. I need to address our issue at the back, namely the loss of Grimaldo that will see him out throughout all of February and most of March. Davide Santon is on Roma’s transfer list. I have no interest in signing him outright, but getting him on loan for the season’s remainder is definitely of interest to me and that’s exactly what I arrange.

Elsewhere there are rumours, gossip, especially about the ‘Insigne to Liverpool’ non-story, but nothing solid, and by and large I escape the transfer window intact. Money’s tight at the San Paolo. This needs to be viewed in relative terms. There’s a plethora of sides in real financial danger, which we aren’t, but my hope would be to make large-scale upgrades to the squad in the summer and I’m not sure that I will get that opportunity, not without first selling one of our crown jewels, like Fabian de Bruyne or Lorenzo Insigne, and quite frankly I would rather not go down that particular road. I fully expect that we will be in the red by the end of the season, at which point prize money and sponsorship income will make all the difference. An effort by the supporters to haul their sorry arses into the ground on a consistent basis would amount to a very nice bonus. We’re all in this together.

Another packed month of football follows. We will be playing just four league games, but there’s also the two-legged Italian Cup semi-final, and the resumption of Europa League hostilities with Lille on the horizon.

We go into the Udinese cup game at home with Eljeif Elmas an injury doubt, courtesy of a pulled groin (don’t ask), and Riccardo Orsolini has been sent home with a cold. Juve and Inter come to an indecisive 0-0 draw in Turin, which sounds like fun. We’re hopeful of a big result here, and my fingers are crossed for Giovanni di Lorenzo, back in the starting line-up for the first time since early December.

I’ll confess that I didn’t think the semi would coax such a nervy performance out of us. In my head Udinese are here to be steamrolled, but it’s a tense and uncomfortable occasion. The one highlight is a lofted long pass from Fabian that finds Victor Osimhen in line with the opposition defence. The Nigerian’s sweet volley does the rest, however despite piling on the pressure we can’t produce anything further and it finishes 1-0. At least we don’t concede, I reason, but for me this ought to have been more emphatic.

I sometimes think we’re at our best in potentially tough encounters. Such is our away day at Fiorentina, which produces a 4-0 victory and an effervescent performance. It’s also a bit vexatious. In my mind constantly is the need to find alternatives for Dries Mertens. Now 33 and surely on the slide, my hope is to slowly ease Osimhen in at his expense, which seems like the obvious thing to do. However, when the Belgian produces an afternoon’s work like the one he conjures up here – two goals, one a brilliant dribble through the defence before slotting home, and two assists – it feels as though I’m back at the drawing board. Obviously, the problem of a brilliant aging forward isn’t really a problem at all, and I’m grateful to him for his brilliance. Lorenzo Insigne and Matteo Politano also make the scoresheet, while the Viola, including Ribery, are reduced to scraps.

For my part, I would happily take easing through the cup games for solid victories in Serie A. In midweek we’re off to the far north-east of Italy for the return Italian Cup leg against Udinese. The town of Udine is pretty indeed, particularly the medieval centre, but we aren’t here for fun and as it is the game is played in sub-freezing conditions. An eerie and still atmosphere of deep cold, which isn’t what we are used to as southern softies, used to working in balmy Mediterranean climes, but oh well.

We’re bad here. The home side go ahead through Rodrigo de Paul, to tie the contest, and then laugh at us as we fail to find a reply. Even when the goal-scorer tries to help by being sent off for two yellows we still can’t find a way through. This is the group of players that put four past Fiorentina, past Juventus for crying out loud, and we’re rendered weirdly toothless. I make my changes, still nothing. We go to extra time, no goals and indeed the best opportunity falls to Udinese’s Deulofeu who thankfully shoots straight at Ospina. The penalties, and a saved effort from Elmas that sends us cascading out of the cup. Had we gone through via the lottery I still wouldn’t have been especially happy; as it is we have suffered a real blow.

Maybe playing in conditions that aren’t natural to us makes a difference. One thing for certain is that shouldn’t be a factor when we come to take on Bologna at the San Paolo, in the twenty-second match of our league campaign. There’s a need for us to stay on track, to not let the bad result at Udinese have an adverse effect on everything else, especially to not give time and space to Roberto Soriano, the Bolognese attacking midfielder who counts as their star man.

Bologna come to defend. They’re decent at it, holding on to the ball greedily when they have it, trying thoughtfully to bring Soriano and Viviano into the action to make something happen. But when Fabian crosses for Dries Mertens’s lashed in opener on thirteen minutes the evening is ours. Matteo Politano and Lorenzo Insigne pad out their accounts in the first half, and Riccardo Orsolini adds a fourth against his old team late on to seal a grand victory. The fans are loving life at the end of this one, just a shame that more of them don’t come to the stadium to express their pleasure.

Lille in the Europa League are next. We’re playing the away leg first, up near the Belgian border and nervous about taking on a good French outfit. They’re second in the evocatively named Ligue Un Uber Eats – no prizes for guessing who’s top – and in midfielder Renato Sanches sport a player who commands respect. We’re also concerned about the possible impact of Ikone, one of three Lille attacking midfielders named Jonathan, along with the raw potential of Timothy Weah, George’s boy. It turns out they aren’t nearly as good as those names suggest. What they are skilled at is dirty play, a flood of bookings and Orsolini going off with what emerges as a fractured toe and up to three weeks out. Victor Osimhen finds the single strike that decides the game. Some crisp passing moves between the Nigerian and Lozano ends with the striker having the simplest of finishes.

Two days later and we’re on our travels again, this time to Spezia in Liguria, the north-west of Italy, or the upper thigh if you will. Our destination is a pretty coastal city, which also serves as the country’s naval base, hence the number of macho types, chests puffed out as though Maradona is everywhere. Their team is in nineteenth place, seemingly destined for the drop though morale has been raised with a 2-1 victory over the even more hapless Crotone. Either way, there are no excuses for not doing well here.

Whenever we take on a side we’re expected to beat soundly a sort of malaise creeps into the players, as though they think they can go to a place, hold out their hands and declare ‘Points please.’ Sometimes it works because the gulf in quality is plain to see. Victor Osimhen heads us a goal in front late in the first half, and that’s how it remains, however without the cushion of a bigger lead the rest of the proceedings take on an edgy quality. It’s fortunate perhaps that the Aquilotti have very little in the tank and no presence on the flanks, so we can still claim a routine 1-0 result, and I suppose in the end that’s what matters, but I would like to see more joy in our play. As it is I’m made to praise our defence in the post-match conference, whereas in reality they have had little to do.

More nerves to be held in the Europa League home return leg against Lille. We’ve brought a 1-0 lead back and progression is completely in our hands; additionally I’m keen to grasp whatever monies we can reap from the continent’s lesser competition. A bumper crowd shows up for this one, which seems to have an energising effect as a largely second string eleven pulls the French team apart. We’re 4-0 up at the break, the pick a long range volley from Stanislav Lobotka that ripples the back of the net satisfyingly. Five minutes are on the clock when that happens.

Our 5-0 aggregate victory gives me hope that we’ll go far in the competition. The prize money of, er, £456,000, is quite nice, I guess. The downsides are the injury to Hysaj, the consequence of more physical play from Lille, which fortunately isn’t worth more than a day or two’s rest. Demme picks up his routine yellow card; his most recent misdemeanour suspends him from playing in our next Europa League adventure. This will be against PSV Eindhoven. We’ve avoided Arsenal (who have sacked Arteta recently); they get OGC Nice. Milan will face Marseille.

On the last day of February we’re entertaining Cagliari. They’re in mid-table, and once again we are firm favourites with the usual caveats and concerns about taking them seriously. I’m advised that the opposition play a Route One style, which seems to be the sort of throwback that the twenty-first century should more or less have abolished. The system works, though. They’re Serie A’s sixth highest goalscorers, albeit highly porous at the back. I’m starting to see why the attendances drop for games like this. It’s largely highlight-free, Hirving Lozano scoring the goal that splits the teams while Mertens and Politano are at their most diffident. The visitors don’t get a shot on target.

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As the old cliché goes, it’s the result that counts. This one helps to increase our lead in the division, with a twelve-point gap opening to Atalanta. It’s a long way from being over, particularly if Juve start hoovering up the wins, but that’s exactly what we’re doing and to me it doesn’t feel as though we will drop enough points to choke the league. Manolas and Koulibaly are named in the Serie A team of the month, and that shows precisely where the core of our strength lies. We’ve conceded four goals all season, an average of one for every six games, which is fairly awesome.

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March 2021

The schedule continues to play merry hell with us. Thanks mainly to our continued participation in the Europa League we continue to play two games per week, which is heavy work and demands constant scrutiny of the risk assessment and continual squad rotation. Eleven Neapolitans are now considered to be at high risk of picking up an injury. Sometimes players getting knocks is just part of the game. It happens. But I can exacerbate the problem, and in swapping the boys in and out of my starting line-up I hope to minimise the possibility of making things worse.

PSV Eindhoven are first up, at home for this leg. Their manager Roger Schmidt, one of the sexy new breed of German head coaches, plays a Tiki-Taka style, which makes them quite similar to ourselves. The scouts think they aren’t as good as we are, similar in terms of attacking figures but leakier in defence. This is probably borne out when I look at their forward line, which pairs Mario Gotze – scorer of the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final – with young gun Donyell Malen. A fine pair of players for my defenders to cope with.

Victor Osimhen and Kalidou Koulibaly both score during a quick first half double, and then we get to spend most of the match holding off the Dutch response, which is more muted than I might have expected. They get very little time or space in our half, and their best effort is a Van Ginkel dip from close range that Ospina deals with via his legs. It finishes 2-0, a decent lead to take back to the Netherlands, though it could have been better with Lozano especially wasteful with his opportunities; perhaps he was conscious of producing too much against his old team.

It's back up to northern Italia on Sunday to take on Sassuolo. The Watermelon Peel are resolutely mid-table, going nowhere, and I expect a victory here, especially as they are missing so many first team players, including Napoli target Domenico Berardi. I get it too. After dealing with some early home team forays that are more of the hit and hope variety than artistic Lorenzo Insigne fires past Consigli from an incisive break along the entire length of the pitch. A Marlon own-goal just after the half-hour mark makes it 2-0, and we can even afford to watch the keeper save from Mertens’s weak penalty kick without losing too much perspiration. As Sassuolo try to rally in the second period, Matteo Politano volleys into the top corner to put the seal on our victory. The home team resort to foul play and grabbed chances, and luckily we emerge without any fresh injuries.

The return leg against PSV turns into something of a classic for the neutral. Not for me, though; for me it’s horrible, a roller-coaster in which the Dutchmen look at times like ripping up our lead. It’s all going so well when Hirving Lozano gives us the lead shortly before half-time, but then the home side come roaring back. Eran Zahavi places his shot into the bottom corner moments before the whistle and then they score again early in the second via Marco van Ginkel’s admittedly lovely volley. At this moment I can only sense a defeat. Davide Santon has started well, putting in a gloriously timed challenge to part Gotze from the ball in the penalty area, a pinpoint tackle, but he’s beginning to wilt under pressure. Armanda Izzo is especially bad. Koulibaly comes on to shore things up at the back. Also on the field by now is Lorenzo Insigne, who scores in the eighty-second minute to square the scoreline on the night. He goes off injured shortly after that, a twisted knee that will keep him out for the best part of a week, and then Malen scores, a goal that is mercifully ruled offside.

So we prevail, 2-2 and 4-2 on aggregate. What looks like a straightforward passage to the Quarter-Final has in fact been anything but; PSV put us through the wringer here. The million-pound bonus for getting through it is quite nice. The draw for the quarters is also, I think, relatively kind. We get Olympiakos. Prevail against them, and it’s Arsenal or Leicester in the Semi-Final.

A double-header of ties against Rome-based, Serie A challengers follows. Lazio first, then Roma. The sky blue half of the capital are in fourth place, and in Luis Alberto have an attacking midfielder of real quality, a ‘must sign’ according to my scouts, who obviously know the location of the £100 million war chest we would need to spend on him, because I certainly don’t. Luis or not, we should be able to win and I am optimistically going with the thought that we have a particularly good record when we play against similarly talented option. And win we do. The game is more end-to-end than I would like. They actually have more shots than we do, and at times we seem content to come out on top of the yellow card count rather than the match. That said, Immobile is injured for the visitors. Calcedo plays. He’s handy rather than a scoring ace, and we have Dries Mertens, who is impossible to play against on his day. This is one of those occasions when he struts his stuff, scoring two goals – both involving a good deal of skilful approach play – to make the difference.

A chance to breathe, and then we give the stadium a quick lick and polish so that we can welcome AS Roma. The scouts rave about the side in fifth place but suggest that they’re especially weak in goal. Alisson Becker used to occupy their net. These days it’s Antonio Mirante, an ancient Italian whose best spells came with Parma and Sampdoria. We need to be respectful towards their wily, aging forwards, Edin Dzeko and Pedro, while young centre-back Gianluca Mancini could be on our summer shopping list.

This one goes ill for us. A weight of fatigue has settled into our play, heroes like Mertens completely failing to lift his game once again. It looks as though the She-Wolf is in the same predicament, but very late on a long throw from Smalling finds Dzeko in the box and his scoring feet do the rest. A home defeat, one played before a rare capacity crowd. Way to send them home smiling…

A battered and bruised set of Blues heads off to Genoa for our last fixture of the month before the international break takes over. Threatened with relegation and in very real danger of drifting listlessly towards their destination, the team that is nicknamed the Old Fool without irony should be due a whupping, but I’m happy to take any kind of win at the Luigi Ferraris. It isn’t pretty but we do it, a training ground move that finds Politano crossing for Victor Osimhen and the big Nigerian producing a moment of magic with his feet. For the home side, taking on a haunted look as though staring into the headlights of Serie B, it’s turgid and mired in dirty play. They haul on Goran Pandev to try and make a difference. The Macedonian relic, a throwback to more glorious times for Italian football, hasn’t scored a goal in twenty-eight appearances this term and never comes close to changing that here.

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Despite messing up against Roma we have opened a fifteen-point gap in the division. Napoli can finish no lower than seventh, which pretty much guarantees a prolonging of our continental adventures in 2021/22, however we are gunning for an altogether bigger prize.

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April 2021 - Part One

With the season drawing to a close I am beginning to get a very good fix on the things I want to change over the summer. SSC Napoli have now gone into the red overall. We will have done very well if the bank balance is kept to less than ten million overdrawn by the time we reach the end, and this will certainly have an impact on what monies I am offered for transfers; neither can I expect to see any significant increase in my wage budget given that it’s so bloated from the start. I fully expect to have to work within existing limits, and to a large extent I think this is completely fair.

So it’s a case of needing to sell in order to buy. We have a number of players who are over twenty-one and currently out on loan, and I will need to make decisions about them, though most likely they are elsewhere for a reason i.e. not good enough. Of the current first team, I highlight the following areas:

  • GoalkeepersDavid Ospina will enter his final year contractually in 2021/22, and I am tempted to cash in now. Alex Meret has been mithering for a new deal, which he should definitely get, and while I currently ask Koulibaly to bully him back down whenever he raises the matter, the plan is to give him a pay increase and upscale his status to regular starter, with Ospina being sold off.
  • Central Defence – Manos and Koulibaly are great, Izzo’s okay and homegrown, but elsewhere we are weak. Maksimovic is the fourth man, to be used at the direst end of need, however there’s a flexibility to him as he can also operate at right-back when required. Another good centre-back is needed. There are various targets, led by Eric Garcia who is winding down his contract at Man City and can be signed on a free.
  • Defensive Midfield – I’m not very impressed with Demme overall and Bakayoko is better but here on loan. The likely outcome is that I will need to bring someone in over the summer. Tonali would be ideal, however I dare say I’m not the only person saying that and there are alternative targets. A position to watch.
  • Central Midfield – not a priority area, yet good Italian midfielders like Fiorentina’s Castrovilli and Pellegrini at Roma are tantalisingly cheap, according to my scouts, and I am tempted to look further into acquiring one of these, probably at the expense of Elmas, who has far from blown my mind this season.
  • Strikers – the time is nearly here to replace Mertens with Osimhen as my regular starter. That said, old Dries still has something to contribute, even in his advancing years and entering probably his last season as a Neapolitan. The big plus with Mertens is that he can also play on the wings, so he’s useful to keep around. That does leave space for a plucky youngster to be recruited. Two Inter forwards who are trying to break through look like possibilities – Esposito would be perfect but possibly not for sale; Salcedo is the other, however not as good nor as reliable. After defensive midfield this is a priority for me; I don’t think we have threatened enough in attack and this needs to improve.

The situation entering the season’s penultimate month boils down to this. Napoli are on 74 points with twenty-eight played. Ten games to go, a possible thirty points still in play. Juventus are our closest challengers, in third place but with a match in hand over Atalanta. If they win each and every remaining fixture, including one against us, then they can finish on 87. The target is therefore 88. Five wins will do it, and as it happens there are just as many league games to play in April, though these include Inter and Atalanta at home and Juve away.

The title feels as though it’s within touching distance. Our form might be based on increasingly edgy performances, too often squeezing out results rather than owning the opposition, doing what we need to do instead of wowing the supporters. The board are disappointed that our football hasn’t been entertaining. They’ve got a point, however I feel this will come over time and with flashier players arriving. If I can deliver Serie A – Napoli’s first since 1990, and our third overall – then I believe most of their bugbears and doubts will fade away.

Inter Milan come to the San Paolo looking for an improvement in their fortunes. Ernesto Valverde is now the man in charge. He’s done what no one has achieved since Arsene Wenger and coaxed the good stuff out of Alexis Sanchez, who’s considered to be the one we have to watch. Lautaro Martinez starts alongside him, making for a premium front line hailing from South America, and they can also call on Perisic and a veteran, imperious midfield pairing of Vidal and Nainggolan. Stefano Sensi is out with a damaged kneecap, which for me is something of a blessing. Inter are ninth. They have been disappointing, but there’s a feeling that with Valverde they are turning a corner.

The stage is set for who can come out on top between a rampaging Inter attack and our tight defence. Can we grab a goal while keeping Martinez and his buddies at bay? The answer is yes. In the seventeenth minute, a Fabian cross to Piotr Zielinski, who’s twenty-five yards from goal, results in a long shot that defies both the away defence and keeper Handanovic to give us the lead. Early in the second half, while we deal with the visitors’ attacks a foray into the opposition half finds Lozano crossing in from the left. Matteo Politano is very narrowly onside, capable of producing an accurate finish from a tight angle and close marking, and it’s this level of scoring that is required to get the better of a top goalie.

Inter fail to find any kind of response. Martinez has their best effort, a point-blank shot against which Meret makes himself big and tips it wide. Phew. Juve can only draw away to Udinese, and considering we have the Old Lady next those two points gained may turn out to be crucial. In the meantime, we’ve had our youth intake. It’s rubbish. Here are the best of the bunch, and an uninspiring lot they are, sort of a Garnet Generation.

Kostas Manolas goes down with food poisoning. He may be back in time for the home leg of our Europa League Quarter Final, in which we are facing one of his old teams, the Greek comers Olympiakos. They progressed from a group that contained Feyenoord and Slavia Prague before overcoming Real San Sebastian and Viktoria Plzen to make it to this stage. Theirs is a small squad, anchored by Rafinha, the aging Brazilian full-back who has a lengthy spell with Bayern Munich in his list of previous. Now 35, the scouts don’t rate him highly, but I look at his levels of determination and would love to sprinkle some of that gold dust over my players. Elsewhere, it’s a mixture of journeymen and loanees. The absence of Greeks in their side is a surprise. Bruma, Adrian and Ruben Vinagre (borrowed from Wolves) bolster the ranks.

We entertain the Greeks on Thursday, with Juve to follow two days later, so there’s little choice but to make sweeping changes to our line-up for this one. Only Koulibaly and Grimaldo (because Mario Rui has a tight groin) are retained from the Inter win. Otherwise it’s a reshaped eleven. But that’s fine, because there’s a clear difference in quality between us and them. Any worries I have that Olympiakos might turn out to be one of those apparently lesser sides that carry secret timebomb of teamwork and dedication evaporate when Victor Osimhen scores two first half goals. After the break, they helpfully clatter Insigne in the box so that the Nigerian can get his hat-trick.

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April 2021 - Part Two

On paper, the next fixture is arguably our toughest – Juventus in Turin. Perhaps in times past this would indeed have been the case, back when Conte and Allegri were cracking heads with their juggernaut of a football club. Under Andrea Pirlo they have slipped. I think the diplomatic phrase here is ‘in transition’. The crazy part is that each of the players we face ought to have the quality to wipe our noses in it and then romp the league – Buffon, Chiellini, Merih Demiral, De Ligt, Alex Sandro, Bernadeschi, Ramsey, McKinnie, Ronaldo, Kulusevski, Dybala. Even their bench – featuring Danilo, Rabiot, Morata, Bonucci and Cuadrado – makes for a tasty dish. As it is we win 4-0, a tie that is even where the numbers are concerned, however better finishing, a greater sense of urgency and an eye on the prize make the difference. Matteo Politano and Kostas Manolas score our first half goals. As Juve try to press us in the second Hirving Lozano produces a quick brace to add the cherry to the icing of victory here. The gap between our teams is up to twenty-three points. Surely we can’t below it now.

Taking a 3-0 lead to Greece should make our progression to the Europa League Semi-Final simple enough. Just play carefully and we ought to be through. After a quiet first period, which I’m happy enough to witness, Eljif Elmas fires us into the lead shortly after the break. But then Mohamed Mady Camara conjures an equaliser, and even at 4-1 up I start to feel the pressure. Should I have fielded a stronger eleven…? The home side roar into action, trying to generate some excitement for their 32,000 supporters. Ultimately though, we are the better team. Riccardo Orsolini, the game’s most creative presence, puts us back in front, and then substitute Lorenzo Insigne comes on for the wasteful Lozano and produces the sort of shot that no one keeps out.

6-1 on aggregate then, and we will be taking on Arsenal in the semi, after they’ve seen off Leicester by a combined score of 7-4. Get past the Gunners and the Final, to be played in the Energa Gdansk in Poland, will feature either CSKA Moscow or AC Milan.

Back to Serie A, and the most insipid of 0-0 draws on a sunny afternoon at the San Paolo. In some ways I’m relatively sanguine about this. Our visitors are Atalanta, second in the division and the nearest thing we have to a title challenger. They also aren’t as good as us, and memories of our romped victory at their place linger as we fail to produce anything like as good a performance. We dominate, but Atalanta defend well, have a Man of the Match in dogged midfielder Marten de Roon, and Neapolitans go home shrugging their shoulders.

What we have done is guarantee Champions League football next season. Clearly we want more than that but meeting the board’s goal means that they can set our budgets for the forthcoming campaign. The wage budget is increased by a few hundred grand; we can now spend £2.6 million per week. It’s disappointing to learn that they have allocated me with £13.91 million to spend on transfers. It isn’t entirely unfair given the club’s balance is now a few million in the red, but the lack of ambition is a shame. Had I achieved this in the Premier League at a similar sized set-up then riches would be mine. On the plus side, there isn’t very much that we need, and that’s kind of fortunate because I don’t have much to change things around.

By now, only Juve and Atalanta can possibly catch us. They can finish on 82 and 84 points respectively. We on the other hand are sitting pretty on 81. Four points from seven remaining fixtures will seal the title for Napoli, leaving us the freedom to focus on Europe, and with Verona (away) and Crotone at home to come we should be in a position to wrap up our affairs quickly. Hellas have had a good year. They’re in seventh place and are competing for continental qualification, but we’re better and I let the players know in no uncertain terms that we ought to come away from Marcantonio Bentegodi with all three points. Some of them have the cheek to be furious with this announcement. Snowflakes.

The night before our game Juve lose at home to Roma 2-1, which removes them from the title equation. Atalanta win though, so it will take more than a win at Verona to make things official. There’s no real urgency to get the result, similarly there are few excuses for the half-cocked work we put in during the first half. The players are in a complacent mood, feeling that they’re invulnerable, and I make it clear at the break that better is expected. Shortly after kick-off, we win a corner. Politano puts in the kick, and Kalidou Koulibaly is there to nod home. A little while later, Lorenzo Insigne is criminally unmarked at the far post when the cross floats in and he’s left with the simplest of finishes. It isn’t a match for the hipster aesthetes out there, but it’s effective and does the job.

At the weekend we have Crotone at home. The visitors are in nineteenth place and look frankly doomed, not quite as bad as Spezia – who have fifteen points to their credit – but it will take a bit of a miracle for them to prevail. Atalanta are away to Roma, a fixture I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Their game takes place on the day before ours, so if we keep our fingers crossed, stroke passing black cats, etc, it might all be over by the time we take to the field. It isn’t. The Goddess pulls off a 3-1 win at the Olimpico, courtesy of a Luis Muriel hat-trick, so we still need to grab that point. Also on my mind is the Arsenal game in several days’ time. I want to put a good side out for that one, so I am depending on some of the lesser lights to get us over the line against Crotone.

The match is a slog. We rack up twenty-four shots to the visitors’ sole effort, and enjoy more than two-thirds possession, like the little Manchester City lot that we are, however it’s decided by a single goal, Hirving Lozano finding the net after eighteen minutes. It’s difficult to say how many more we should have had. Put it down to a combination of dogged defending, luck, a dash of complacency and operating in first gear, perhaps. Not that it matters. At the end we’re shaking hands with the bigwigs of the Italian FA and given custodianship of the Serie A trophy.

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As a charming bonus for clinching Serie A, £1.8 million is sliced off my transfer budget. This is due to Napoli paying that sum of money to Bordeaux as part of the deal to sign Adam Ounas. The player in question is an Algerian winger who we signed several years ago, has since largely failed to make the grade and is currently on loan with Cagliari. To summarise, I’m being punished for someone I didn’t sign and who I don’t want. Groovy.

April rounds off with a trip to London and our Europa League Semi-Final against Arsenal. Now managed by Marcelo Bielsa after the sacking of Arteta, the Gunners look destined to finish in their worse position for years and years. Currently eighth, out of reach of the Champions League places and frankly drifting, they’ve lost almost as many matches as they have won. For all that, there’s plenty of talent here. Especially notable is the contribution of young tyro Bukayo Saka, an effervescent livewire on the wing who can create something from next to nothing, an alchemist in other words.

As though to underline the comparative excellence of the Premier League, we manage not a single shot in the first half as Arsenal put us to the sword. We look tired and laboured, while the home team seem intent of taking out all the frustrations of their season out on us. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazette look full of slippery movement, sending my defenders spinning in their wake, however they don’t open their account until the hour mark when Koulibaly concedes a penalty and the Gabonese forward slots coolly to Ospina’s left. Forced to play with a more positive mentality, Victor Osimhen snatches one back and then Kostas Manolas finally puts us in front when he heads in from Mario Rui’s corner kick. But Arsenal don’t deserve to lose, and some late sustained pressure reaps its reward when Dani Ceballos produces an equaliser. 2-2 is a very promising scoreline to take back to Italy, considering the strength of the opposition.

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May 2021

The league is done. We have five fixtures remaining but the only competition that really matters now is the Europa League, where we have a return leg against Arsenal to play and a hopeful place in the grand finale. It’s in an uncaring mood that we travel to Udinese for one of those remaining commitments. A squad is picked on the basis that none of these starting players will take the field in midweek, and a 0-0 draw in which the only player beyond the defence who comes out of it with any credit is Orsolini. Dries Mertens is notably bobbins. I tell him to pick up his form; thankfully he agrees that it’s been an issue.

On to Arsenal then, our date with destiny. The visitors help us out when centre-back Gabriel is sent off for a second yellow early in the tie. They create little and rack up fouls as though they are going out of fashion. We score four goals and make it look very, very easy. Victor Osimhen and Fabian put us two up in the first five minutes. Matteo Politano scores an excellent solo effort in the second half before Riccardo Orsolini adds the cherry on top deep into injury time. It’s surprising just how good we are when we care and something is on the line. Politano claims the match ball but Fabian and full-back Hysaj could make just as good a case for themselves. On our day, teams can’t live with our pace, our pressing and the potency of our counter-attacks. The Gunners melt away. We will take on Milan in an all-Italian final, after they knock out CSKA Moscow.

Parma at home are next. They are seventeenth, very much in the relegation picture, and it’s impossible to think that they won’t be more invested in our league encounter than we are. Things go wrong in the first half when we’re knocking the ball about in their half and then a mis-pass from Izzo sees Andreas Cornelius in possession and haring off towards our goal. Powering beyond the last man he places his shot in the bottom corner to put Parma in the lead. This wakes up our two-thirds ground into issuing the boos, and also unlocks the chip in Dries Mertens’s head that ensures he reacts to my bollocking. When we win a penalty after Lozano is clobbered in the area he makes no mistake with his kick. Before the half is done the Belgian has made it 2-1, released via a long ball and putting his shot beyond Sepe. We are more than capable of holding on to that scoreline, consigning  Parma to yet another defeat in what for us is a meaningless contest.

Despite the result, and the fact we have now broken the record for Napoli victories within a single season, there are concerns. Eljif Elmas, for me one of the squad’s more promising members, should be using this stage to show me his worth. He isn’t. Hirving Lozano has been terrific in Europe, less so in Italy. The form of Stanislav Lobotka is also on my radar. Producing little in Serie A, I wonder whether his future should be in defensive midfield, or if it’s time to hawk him out to one of those Chinese clubs that have their wallets open in his direction.

We’re hosting Benevento in midweek, not the sort of fixture that will coax Neapolitans out of their homes. They have done enough to guarantee survival, so this has all the makings of a nothing game, the sort of end of season commitment played between sides with little investment in what happens. The opposition are rubbish and we coast through to a 2-0 victory, with goals from Hirving Lozano and Stanislav Lobotka (playing at DM and doing well). What they are good at is fouling. By the end Benevento have had two players sent off and injured three of mine. Di Lorenzo is out for a fortnight with pulled knee ligaments. Lozano has a gashed lower leg, thanks to the enthusiastic studs of Foulon. Worst of all is the fractured wrist suffered by Alex Grimaldo, which close to ends his season. Thanks Filippo Inzaghi, and your disgusting team. I criticise his side’s dirty play in my post-match presser. He doesn’t care; what a classy guy.

We have now racked up 94 points for the season, which is a new team record. There’s no catching up with the Serie A record high, which was recorded by Juventus back in 2013/14 and a 102 points haul. At the weekend we’re away at AS Roma, the sort of tricky fixture that makes me happy the outcome doesn’t matter very much. I’m an admirer of them. A number of their players would fit very well within my side’s ranks – Mancini, Pellegrini, Veretout, Zaniolo. Hell, I’d even take Amadou Diawara, the defensive midfielder who was once part of the Napoli set-up and would count as homegrown if he was to return. I’m advised to watch out for Edin Dzeko, which I’m grateful for as I wouldn’t have considered it otherwise.

Roma beat us at home earlier in the campaign, and I’m worried about letting them do the double over us. I needn’t have. Despite playing with a balanced mentality, watching out for anything they can throw at us, especially from wily veteran Pedro, we run out 3-0 winners. Victor Osimhen and Kalidou Koulibaly both put us ahead, then the home side effectively concede the game when Zaniolo is sent off for a second yellow. Fabian produces a late, long-range strike of pure golden wonder to put a seal on the result, and to provide him with his tenth of the campaign. The Spaniard was outstanding in the season’s early passes, less so recently, but it’s here that he reminds me just how good he can be.

Inter Milan beat Udinese 2-0 in the Italian Cup Final. Not winning this competition will keep me rooted in Italy for at least another year. Honestly, some of the gloss has worn off with the lowly transfer budget that I have to work with. It’s as though I am being penalised for our success. Some creative accountancy will be required over the summer, I reckon.

I promise to put on a show for the supporters in our league season finale, a home tie against Sampdoria. There’s beef here. La Samp cancelled their affiliation with us some months ago, which I have chosen to take personally and now hope we bury them. The possibility that winning here will get them relegated would rub their noses in it quite nicely. In reality, the side is rotated because we’re playing the Europa League Final in a few days’ time. This is very much a second string eleven, one that still has the muscle to prevail 2-1 on the day. Riccardo Orsolini and a rare set-piece goal from Nikola Maksimovic see the Genoese comers off, and they save just a little face by producing a late response by Mikkel Damsgaard. Not a bad way to sign off a season’s work, and not a terrible following with more than 41,000 filling the San Paolo. The gaps of naked blue seats aren’t quite so noticeable today.

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Victory leaves us with a three-figure finish for the campaign, rather a superb show of domination on the whole. Sampdoria save their bacon, while Parma – still our affiliate – return to Serie B with Crotone and Spezia. I’m so pleased with the way this table looks. The 'Goals For' column shows that we were far more attacking than we were given credit for, but it’s in the defensive numbers where we really shine. Seven conceded across thirty-eight matches is a staggering achievement; man mountain Koulibaly deserves so much credit for his work, as does Manolas, and Meret in goal.

It's always nice to finish with a cup final. We’re in Gdansk, Danzig in old money, to take on AC Milan in the showpiece of the Europa League. The fact this stadium isn’t anything like as nice or big as our home grounds is lost on neither team. Despite our less than thrilling record against the Rossoneri I feel confident coming in to this one. We’re in good form. Our opposition aren’t. They’re missing one or two key players, principally Hakan Calhanoglu who had the capacity to torture us from the number ten position. Brahim Diaz replaces him; not as terrifying, in my opinion. All the same, Donnarumma is never a fun prospect to overcome. Milan protect their young number one with Kessie and Bennacer in defensive midfield, with good defenders like Romagnoli and Kjaer in shielding roles. I anticipate a close contest.

The fun starts in the twenty-first minute. Politano takes a free-kick just outside their penalty area. Kostas Manolas somehow beats the offside trap and toe pokes the ball into the near corner, a delightful training ground goal that leaves Calabria looking devastated. After that we play an evenly matched game. The red and black shirts have their moments. Especially predatory is Zlatan, but Koulibaly sees it as a personal mission to stop the Swede from adding to his legend, and with their totemic forward neutralised Milan are much reduced. They defend well also, keeping us at bay even though Osimhen looks lively and former Inter man Politano is living to punish his old rivals. In added time, with the score still 1-0 and Milan piling forward, we get a break and Hysaj fires a cross into the box. Hirving Lozano gets ahead of Musacchio and heads beyond Donnarumma into the far corner of his net. We’ve done it!

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2020/21 – That was the Season that was

The players have gone on their holidays or are off to represent their countries in South America and the European Championships. For me, it’s time to take a deep breathe, relax with a fine malt... whiskey... cheap bottle of gin... four pack of beer... Pepsi Max, and look over what has just happened.

Glory Hunter Progress

I’m not here to advance the legacy of SSC Napoli, but my own pursuit of glory. In Season One I have added two trophies to the cabinet – the Serie A title and victory in the Europa League. In truth, the former was always on the cards if we achieved consistency against the kind of teams we should be able to beat, and that’s exactly what happened. The best Italian sides will always give us a game, but get beyond these and what’s left is a rump. I am a lot happier about winning the continent’s lesser cup competition. After a certain point it’s always a lottery. Injuries, fitness and the good old luck of the draw are factors, so it’s a pleasure to have got this out of the way so quickly.

Still, our failure in the Coppa Italia guarantees at least one more year in Italy. Not that I’m complaining. My reputation is improving along with my language skills, and despite some concerns about the ambition at the San Paolo it’s a good club to take charge of.

Season Review

A year featuring three trophies (don’t forget the Super Cup!) takes in the success of my signings. Riccardo Orsolini was the best. The right winger ended with a 7.09 average and ten goals, and on the cusp of making it into the Italian national team. Alex Grimaldo was excellent if troubled with injuries and Armanda Izzo achieved a 7.10 average across his twenty-seven appearances, always rotated for Koulibaly and Manolas and letting down neither player by replacing them.

While the board remain tight with their purse-strings Napoli’s reputation and their financial pulling power grew. A news item that was received shortly before the end of the campaign offered a hint to their attitude, as it was revealed we have the highest percentage of our turnover being spent on players’ wages within Serie A. That figure is 62%, and it’s a really unhealthy place to be. Clearly we either need to (i) cut costs (ii) increase our commercial income (iii) fill the stadium more. Perhaps now we are a Champions League club, things will begin to improve.

I am named Serie A Managers’ Manager of the Year, and if I say so myself it’s richly deserved. The fans name Kouliably as their Player of the Year, again wholly warranted as everything was built on our ability to defend. Alex Meret, who has just signed a new contract, is the Young Player of the Season.

Records are broken. Meret has claimed the most clean sheets in a season, with a stonking twenty-seven. Matteo Politano wins the most Player of the Match awards, with seven, and for good measure is named Serie A’s best player. On the downside, Diego Demme is our dirtiest baller, picking up fourteen yellows and one red. That’s quite impressive considering he played second fiddle to Bakayoko.

Andrea Belotti is the division’s top scorer, with a smashing 29 strikes. That’s a really good haul, putting Mertens – the Neapolitan who finished highest in Serie A – with a shabby 15 in the shade. Jordan Veretout is the highest rated player, which leads to the player requesting to be transfer listed and courting the attentions of Manchester United. We are credited with having both the signing of the season (Orsolini) and the worse, in poor old Alex Grimaldo. It’s such an undeserved claim to fame. When not injured, he played really well for us.

Claudio Zanchetta of the Italian Football Free Press writes ‘It was a superb season for the Partenopei as they claimed the title to back up their pre-season credentials.’ Honeyed words from Claudio, though we were third favourites as I recall, with Juve tipped for another year of domination.

Talking of whom, Andrea Pirlo is sacked by the Old Lady and they’re looking for a new sucker. I’m not tempted, indeed the vacancy that does attract me momentarily is the hot seat at Everton. The Toffees have worked through Ancelotti and later Howe, and neither manager is able to save them from relegation from the Premier League. I have spent my entire life knowing Everton as a top flight club, sometimes a good one, and the prospect of lifting a grand old club back to the top has its sense of promise. Maybe another time.

Staying in England, Manchester United claim the Premier League ahead of Liverpool and Man City. Ronald Koeman proves to be success at Barcelona, lifting La Liga while Real Madrid can manage nothing better than fifth place. Lionel Messi is at his best here, scoring a staggering 8.02 average across the campaign. What a GOAT. In Germany, Bayern Munich lift the Bundesliga crown at an even earlier point than we manage, thanks as much to the ordinariness of the opposition as their brilliance. I would like to talk about an upset in France, however there isn’t one. Paris Saint Germain win by more than twenty points ahead of Lille. Barcelona beat Chelsea via the penalty shootout lottery to claim the Champions League.

Available top-flight jobs are:

  • England – Everton and Tottenham
  • France – Monaco and Nimes
  • Germany – Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig
  • Italy – AC Milan, Juventus and Torino
  • Spain – Celta Vigo, Real Madrid, and Villarreal

For my part, I am considered to be very secure at the San Paolo, though the board expects me to deliver more entertaining football in the future. I have a 3.5 star rating (fairly good), with strong characteristics in media handling, tactical consistency and managing finances. I still haven’t fully learned the Italian language, but my semaphore is crazy good.

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2020/21 – The Squad

A review of the players who got us through this long and ultimately glorious season, in shirt number order…

1. Alex Meret
Age – Nationality: 24 – Italian (1 cap)
Current Value: £14.25 million 
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: 34 (0) – 27
Average Rating: 7.13
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Regular starter who could still improve
Alex started the year as back-up to David Ospina and steadily wrested away the Colombian’s number one post. A great shot stopper who kept clean sheet after clean sheet, his year has ended with him being named our undisputed regular keeper, with an objective to usurp Donnarumma within the national set-up.

2. Giovanni Di Lorenzo
Age – Nationality: 27 – Italian (10 caps)
Current Value: £26.5 million 
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Right Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 24 (2) – 1 – 5 
Average Rating: 7.26
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Displays resolute characteristics
Our first choice at right-back, Gio had a good year that was undermined by a string of niggling injuries. There were five separate lay-offs across the campaign, ranging from a couple of days’ out to a six-week lay-off with a broken toe. More a case of bad luck than anything chronic, though the pulled knee ligaments that are keeping him out while I write these words seem to be a recurring problem. Will this matter? Do Gio’s obvious qualities make the occasional lack of availability worthwhile? He was certainly valuable to us, with good crossing and a willingness to patrol his flank endlessly, just a shame it wasn’t more often.

3. Alex Grimaldo
Age – Nationality: 25 (Spanish (0 caps)
Current Value: £19 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left-Sided Complete Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 23 (1) – 0 – 2 
Average Rating: 7.22
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Good balance and ability on the ball
Like Di Lorenzo, Alex had occasional problems with injuries (we ended up brining in Santon to cover for a lengthy absence from the Spaniard). When available this new signing quickly asserted himself as the best in his position, an excellent dribbler and decision maker with a great passing range and the telepathic ability to pick out team-mates at will. I like him. He likes big matches. There’s a worrying note on his record that he has declined slightly as a footballer, however this could be a result of his two months out with torn thigh muscle that he suffered earlier in the year.

4. Kostas Manolas
Age – Nationality: 29 – Greek (50 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £27 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 34 (2) – 5 – 1 
Average Rating: 7.29
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans like this player
Kostas has just completed his second season with the Partenopei, an important one as his regular partnership with Koulibaly became a brick wall at the back and rendered us close to impenetrable. The Greek international had an eye for goal also, his big frame making him an ideal target during set-pieces. Physically he’s close to miraculous. His mental numbers are great also, and though his overall technical levels suggest he’s a defender ultimately of the no-nonsense ilk there are few better.

5. Tiemoue Bakayoko
Age – Nationality: 26 – French (1 cap)
Current Value: £25.5 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 31 (3) – 1 – 2 
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Extremely interested in joining our club
Hulking French DM who effortlessly overshadowed Diego Demme to become first choice for his role. ‘Tim’ is on loan from Chelsea, and we need to give him back because they want more for him than we can ever afford at this stage, though we have an eye on the lapse of his Blues contract in a year’s time. A big game player who trains well, is still improving and whose ambitions matched my own in the sense he always wanted to win, right up until the last moment, the only real negative was his disciplinary record. Six yellow cards and two reds, both for second bookings, an area of his game he must look to improve.

6. Kalidou Koulibaly
Age – Nationality: 29 – Senegalese (49 caps, 2 goals)
Current Value: £46 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Central Defender
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 44 (2) – 5 – 3 
Average Rating: 7.32
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Star player in his prime years
One of our undisputed star players, ‘Kouly’ has just finished his seventh season with the club, gaining the captaincy and starting the most games for us out of the entire squad. Pretty much undroppable, the Senegalese revelled in his role and his partnership with Manolas; a brave and hardworking defender who never stopped toiling for the cause. Manchester United want him (again), and I would expect an offer far in excess of his value before considering letting him talk to them.

7. Eljif Elmas
Age – Nationality: 21 – Macedonian (29 caps, 5 goals)
Current Value: £14.75 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Advanced Playmaker/Mezzala
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 25 (16) – 3 – 5 
Average Rating: 7.04
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Could improve by a slight amount in the future
Considered to be the third best in our complement of central midfielders, Eljif ended up playing a lot of games without ever really advancing the case that he was critical to the cause. Fairly consistent and capable of great skill, the Macedonian was at his best when was supporting on either flank and provided some fine assists. Growing as a baller, particularly in his passing range, his final goals count was a little disappointing and I’m looking forward to seeing this improve.

8. Fabian
Age – Nationality: 25 – Spanish (13 caps, 3 goals)
Current Value: £48.5 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 32 (13) – 10 – 12 
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Should be considered a leading Serie A player
Fabian blitzed my senses with his sheer virtuosity in the season’s early weeks. I thought I’d found the new De Bruyne, a complete midfield quarterback, and whilst it didn’t work out quite up to those dizzying heights he was nevertheless a key player for us. Undoubtedly world class, with the kind of passing ability that borders on the supernatural, and having scored ten goals for us from midfield, many of them absolute bangers, I feel lucky to have him on board. A class act.

9. Victor Osimhen
Age – Nationality: 22 – Nigerian (13 caps, 8 goals)
Current Value: £23.5 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Pressing Forward
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 26 (13) – 20 – 3 
Average Rating: 7.04
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has explosive pace
Vic ended up being our top goalscorer, with twenty, many of those strikes coming in the early stages of the Europa League where he was allowed to run riot. Otherwise his brief was to wrest the leading striker’s role from Dries Mertens, which he indeed ended up doing, becoming the more reliable source of goals. For all that, he was an expensive acquisition for us. £64 million is a layout that is hard to justify, and I’m not sure Vic ever looked like he fit the bill as a world class striker. He’s young though, he’s definitely improving, and he possesses pace to die for. 

11. Hirving Lozano
Age – Nationality: 25 – Mexican (44 caps, 13 goals)
Current Value: £21 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (both sides)
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 25 (21) – 13 – 7 
Average Rating: 7.02
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Ability to do the unexpected
Hirving’s second season with the club must be considered a success, though that isn’t without caveats. A smart, agile and tricky footballer who is equally comfortable on either flank, the Mexican scored some crucial goals for us and could dazzle the fans with his sheer guile. On the downside, his willingness to fight for the cause was in some doubt; he isn’t a strong player, and I understand he is wondering whether he should be moving to a so-called bigger club. I am tempted to let him go if a good offer comes in for him, say from the perpetually hovering Chelsea, for instance. He rarely suggested that Insigne was in any danger of losing his place in the team, that’s for certain.

12. Armando Izzo
Age – Nationality: 29 – Italian (3 caps)
Current Value: £17.75 million 
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Ball Playing Defender
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 27 (0) – 2 – 1 
Average Rating: 7.10
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a smart player
A relatively cheap acquisition by me at £11 million, Armando was brought in for two reasons (i) to provide good quality cover for our starting centre-backs (ii) he increased our homegrown cohort of first team footballers. There’s no doubt that he isn’t up to the standard of Koulibaly and Manolas, but he provided good service when he did start, which was mainly to give his peers a break, tackling cleanly and showing great determination in producing the food for his hometown team. He’s delighted to be here and we are happy to have him.

13. Mario Rui
Age – Nationality: 30 – Portuguese (15 caps)
Current Value: £13.5 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Left Wing-Back
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 30 (3) – 1 – 6 
Average Rating: 7.35
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Put in some really good performances recently
At first glance Mario didn’t impress me much. A small, bustling figure with a Musketeers moustache, everything about him seemed average. I signed Grimaldo to keep him out of the first team picture too often, but the Spaniard’s injury record landed him with a stack of appearances, during which he never let me down. A leader for whom the bigger the game the happier he is, the Portuguese has been impressive enough to get picked for his national team in the Euros, where it is suggested he will displace Guerreiro in the first eleven. Not a bad year’s work then. 

14. Dries Mertens
Age – Nationality: 34 – Belgian (98 caps, 18 goals)
Current Value: £5.25 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/Advanced Forward
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 31 (11) – 16 – 13 
Average Rating: 7.05
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Regular starter but may be past his best
A reliable performer in his eight seasons in Neapolitan blue, Dries is at last beginning to find his powers on the wane. Especially where his physical numbers are concerned the arrows are all pointing in the wrong direction, suggesting that his status as our starting forward is drawing to a close. On his day he could be very, very good; equally there were increasingly anonymous showings as he couldn’t keep up with the action, and by the end he was usurped by Vic Osimhen, which in many ways is exactly how it should be. Now entering the final year of his contract, the plan is to keep Dries around, largely as a back-up who can support the wings as well as attack, and to hope that he gets something from his twilight as a player coinciding with the club’s best years.

15. Riccardo Orsolini
Age – Nationality: 24 – Italian (1 cap, 1 goal)
Current Value: £13.75 million 
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 29 (19) – 10 – 10 
Average Rating: 7.09
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Potential to be a leading Serie A right winger in the future
I signed Riccardo to play as the alternative on our right wing to Politano, and thanks to his sheer effervescence and injuries elsewhere he ended up playing a lot of football for us. While his numbers are good rather than excellent, the Ascolian had a fine first season playing at a higher level than he used to, his boyish enthusiasm and efforts to please slowly winning us all over. Fast and a fantastic dribbler, he has all the basics intact and now just needs to improve across the board.

16. Nikita Contini
Age – Nationality: 25 – Italian (0 caps)
Current Value: £1.2 million 
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – Clean Sheets: N/A
Average Rating: N/A
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Might not have the required ability or potential
Third choice behind Ospina and Meret, Nikita was never going to get much of a look in at the San Paolo and instead spent his year playing for the Under-20s, for whom he kept twenty clean sheets in thirty-one showings. Not bad at all, but the coaches feel that he is operating at Serie C level and ultimately may never make the grade. In the end, he’s here to pad out our homegrown numbers, but that’s about all there is.

17. Stanislav Lobotka
Age – Nationality: 26 – Slovak (32 caps, 3 goals)
Current Value: £12.25 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Deep Lying Playmaker
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 24 (25) – 2 – 6 
Average Rating: 6.97
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Is a fairly loyal person
It took me a good long while to realise that Stan’s best position may not be in central midfield at all, but rather playing just behind as a DM. His starts there at the tail-end of the season suggested there’s something in that. He can pass really well, and his overall team play is highly valued. Against that are his deficiencies in attacking areas, his lower-than-average key pass count and the low number of assists he has provided. Maybe defensive midfield is his best role for the future.

18. Diego Demme
Age – Nationality: 29 – German (1 cap)
Current Value: £9.5 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Defensive Midfielder
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 28 (5) – 0 – 0  
Average Rating: 7.12
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A perfectionist who constantly strives for improvement
Despite the fairly high rating I’m ambivalent about Diego, notably the high aggression levels that earned him a slew of bookings. He played eighteen league games and racked up ten yellow, which amounts to more than one per every two appearances. All of which said, he’s a very hard worker with the sort of stamina that will keep him going for an age; plus he’s a good team player and a leader on the pitch. If I can find better out there then that might do for him, similarly if someone comes in with an offer I will be happy to gift wrap him for you, but he isn’t without his uses.

19. Nikola Maksimovic
Age – Nationality: 29 – Serbian (34 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £8 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Full-Back (Right)/No-Nonsense Centre-Back
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 14 (0) – 2 – 0  
Average Rating: 7.30
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has a fairly sporting attitude
Try to look beyond the big numbers. Nikola was considered to be the last and least of our central defenders and was used sparingly, mainly in games against the kind of opposition where it was safe to drop the usual starters. The Serb’s ability to fill in at full-back proved to be occasionally useful, and his sheer size (he’s 6’ 4”) made him a unit in the middle, but overall he was a long way sort of the standard I’m looking for and he is surplus to requirements.

20. Piotr Zielinski
Age – Nationality: 27 – Polish (60 caps, 7 goals)
Current Value: £29.5 million 
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Advanced Playmaker
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 34 (8) – 4 – 10  
Average Rating: 6.94
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Considered a creative player
A long serving member of the squad (he’s been here since 2016) who has been a consistent starter throughout, Piotr is considered to be our second best starting midfielder. He’s a cultured baller, robust with only a couple of slight injuries on his record, and his propensity for trying killer balls makes him something of an assist machine. Technical and creative, and supremely comfortable on the ball, the Pole is an absolute asset and he’s lusted after by Barcelona, who will be required to dig deep if they wish to call on his services.

21. Matteo Politano
Age – Nationality: 27 – Italian (12 caps, 1 goal)
Current Value: £35.5 million 
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Inverted Winger (Right)
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 28 (13) – 12 – 11  
Average Rating: 7.34
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Direct free kicks
Sometimes I think I can see why Napoli are in poor health financially. Risky splurges on the likes of Osimhen look reckless and frankly without need, however occasionally they get it very right. Matteo is here on loan, with a £17.25 million permanent transfer from Inter arranged in the summer. The winger, largely unloved at the Giuseppe Meazza (Conte don’t do wingers!), thrilled from the start, scoring and creating with abandon, and he’s wonderful on set pieces. He’s been a revelation, a high-rated performer who has become a regular for his country whilst here. The only thing I don’t like is his high susceptibility to injury, with five separate incidents where he’s been ruled out throughout the course of the year. 

22. Davide Santon
Age – Nationality: 30 – Italian (8 caps)
Current Value: £3.9 million 
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Wing-Back (both sides)
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 9 (11) – 1 – 1  
Average Rating: 6.82
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Has shown early signs that he may be on the decline as a footballer
Signed on loan to buffer the loss of Grimaldo to a lengthy injury. Davide’s brief was to fill in where required and he largely met that requirement. A veteran full-back who works hard and brings good physical assets to the cause, he was also flexible and could fill in at either full-back role, however he was a long way short of the incumbent players. If any of the usual crew were available then they were preferred, which limited his appearances. The coaches believe that he’s on the wane, so he leaves with our thanks and an unwillingness to pay the £3.17 million buy-out clause to make his stay a permanent one. 

23. Elseid Hysaj
Age – Nationality: 27 – Albanian (59 caps, 2 goals)
Current Value: £10 million 
Homegrown status: Trained in nation
Position: Wing-Back (both sides)
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 32 (4) – 0 – 4  
Average Rating: 7.26
Key Coaching Comment: ‘A current international with plenty of experience
I ended up rather loving this Albanian full-back, who came across as the junior to Di Lorenzo but wound up playing more games than he did (thanks to injuries) and could fill in just as consummately at left-back. Fit, fast and still improving as a player, the guy continually impressed me with his defensive awareness and his Duracell fitness levels, and I am resolved to keep him around. Various teams (Arsenal and Leicester) have been sniffing around, and I would expect them to pay through the nose if they are to take him from us.

24. Lorenzo Insigne
Age – Nationality: 29 – Italian (41 caps, 10 goals)
Current Value: £42 million 
Homegrown status: Trained at club
Position: Inverted Winger (Left)/False Nine
Appearances – Goals - Assists: 34 (17) – 16 – 9  
Average Rating: 7.21
Key Coaching Comment: ‘The fans have a great affinity towards this player
Mr Napoli, and alongside Koulibaly and Fabian one of the three pillars of world class brilliance who helped to propel us to greatness this season. Our vice-captain, I stripped him of the captaincy because I’m not a fan of someone wearing the armband while playing so far forward, also I wanted him to focus on doing his funky thing on the wing. This is what he did, scoring very highly across the board, producing a very much above average number of shots, goals, assists and killer passes for someone in his role. Effortlessly better than Lozano and linking up supernaturally well with Dries Mertens, he’s a creative tour de force and he really cares about the team doing well. Replacing him, which we will have to do eventually, will be far from easy.

25. David Ospina
Age – Nationality: 32 – Colombian (110 caps)
Current Value: £9 million 
Homegrown status: N/A
Position: Goalkeeper
Appearances – clean Sheets: 24 (0) – 19  
Average Rating: 7.18
Key Coaching Comment: ‘Light-hearted and jovial character
A veteran keeper who has just finished his third season at the San Paolo, David used to be Arsenal’s choice when it came to cup competitions and became the same for us, slipping from his role as regular starter to play in Meret’s shadow. He isn’t especially happy about this, which is fair, however his rival is younger, Italian and probably all-round better overall. David played ten fewer matches and conceded the same number of goals (seven); admittedly many of these came in European competition against strong opposition. A decision has to be made, and in response to David’s complaint that he needs to be starting more games I have agreed to place him on the transfer list. My feeling is that there won’t be any shortage of interest, and I expect this to be the end of his time with us.

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Summer 2021

One of my triggers over who to sell is working out what to do with players who are in the final year of their contracts. Here is the Napoli first team squad, arranged in contract expiry order, also showing their current earnings…

193040141_Napolisquad2021.jpg.e3b0b6205bd12d9496c02ef58a4aa313.jpg

Only a massive loony wouldn’t try and sort out a new deal for Lorenzo Insigne, and this is duly dispatched. His agent seeks a £40,000 weekly pay-rise; I negotiate down to £20k, and this is accepted. Enzo agrees a three-year contract worth £31 million that will keep him with us until 2024. As for the others in their final years I’m frankly happy to let them go. Between them Mertens, Ospina and Mario Rui rob £258,500 from us on a weekly basis, more than thirteen million annually, the sort of sum that might even cause one of the Glazer brothers to shed a fat tear.

It's a paradoxical brief of this transfer window that I seek to improve the team whilst also reducing our overall spend on salaries. That’s some ask, but my feeling is that there are a lot of players who are here earning high wages for not enough return. In my head I can sort of justify all those who are on six-figure weekly contracts. They add some value to the team. But Demme earning £81k? Maksimovic taking home more than fifty grand per week while taking a bit-part role? Not on my watch. The sums get even crazier in the Under 20s, where Adam Ounas gets £41,000 each week, while being on loan at Cagliari. Fair enough, the Sardinians are meeting most of that while he’s there, but it’s still a criminal splurge.

The aim is to hold my fire until the moment that loan deals come to a close, and then start trading on the horses. In other words, I want to bottom us out financially, see exactly how much I have to play with, before entering the market. With David Ospina agreeing terms with Fenerbahce a pitiful few million is added to the transfer pot (amounting to just under fifteen million – nice) with around £250,000 available in the wage budget. That’s not going to add up to much in terms of new talent, but I’m not beaten.

The European Championships start. Italy open their account with a 4-0 demolition of Croatia, Insigne and Politano leading the charge. Napoii have risen a few places in the European club rankings and now sit in twelfth place. Of Italian sides only the inevitable Juventus are ahead of us, well in front as it happens in third place. Bayern Munich top the lot; Barcelona nip at their heels.

We make out first signing of the summer with the free transfer of Eric Garcia. This Spanish centre-back, 20 years old and out of contract at Manchester City, is available on a free and we face stiff competition for his signature. A couple of big French clubs are into him and Arsenal also chance their arm, but we get our man in the end. Presumably offering him everything he wanted, plus the flowers, chocolates, underground contacts, etc, helped to smooth over the transaction. As a consequence I can now try and hawk out Maksimovic, a defender I don’t think is good enough for us. The Serb, who’ currently helping his country to get eliminated from their group at the Euros, is priced at £17.25 million. His wages are similar to what we will be paying Garcia, so selling him should keep the salary budget on an even keel.

On a lesser note, we agree to take another end-of-contract youngster, Marvin, from Real Madrid. He’s 20, a right winger, and while he isn’t ready for joining the first team just yet we are going to offer him out on loan. Napoli have so few good young prospects that anyone with a modicum of skill will enhance our ranks.

Our pre-season tour will be in New York, taking in games against NY, NYCFC and Philadelphia before the rather more important showcase of Barcelona in the European Super Cup, which will be held in Belfast. Ahead of any of that we have a warm-up against Carpi on 24 July, by which time I already hope to have much of my side rebuilt.

Nikola Maksimovic agrees a £17.25 million transfer to Roma. It never delights the supporters to see a player go to one of our rivals, but I don’t really rate him and I’m fairly happy with the deal. The Serb will replace Gianluca Mancini in their squad, the Roberto namesake departing for Chelsea in a £43.5 million arrangement.

Alongside Marvin, we arrange contracts for Fabio De Vincenzo, Hans Nicolussi Caviglia and Joe Haigh, a trio of freebies who look as though they have some promise.  The three will bolster our youth ranks and may enjoy some time out on loan. Hopefully they will inject a bit of quality into a unit that hasn’t impressed me with its quality.

There are a number of returning loanees who I want to see shipped out. The exodus starts with Gianluca Gaetano, a very average winger, who’s off to Crotone for £1.1 million. Karim Zedadka goes to Perugia for some pocket change. Juve Stabia take Alessio Zerbin, and Alessandro Tutino is now a £525k signing for Benevento. The big name to lose here is Adam Ounas. The £43.5k weekly wage we’re paying him weighs on me like the criminal waste that it is. The Algerian agrees a £2.4 million move to relegated Everton, on whom he will confer what amounts to his services.

Mario Rui is in the last year of his contract with us and I have little interest in renewing it. His adventures in the European Championships for Portugal have been enough to drum up a little interest, and he winds up leaving for Porto. £13.5 million flows into the coffers. The other player on whom I need to make a decision is Dries Mertens. Club legend that he is, there’s no room for sentimentality. The 34 year old Belgian tailed off badly towards the end of the campaign and now strikes me as someone we would keep around for the simple reason of his status as a team leader. Another high earner, I could do with getting his salary off the books and so add him to the list. Arsenal have been on the sniff for a while and make the £7.75 million offer that takes him off our hands. This is an ‘end of an era’ thing. Insigne isn’t happy at losing a friend. I say some things and he says some things, and we get back to business.

I think I’ve said various times that defensive midfielder Diego Demme isn’t a player who fills me with delight. Someone who does is Sandro Tonali, back at Brescia after a fine loan season with Milan. The Rossoneri want Tonali back, but I snake in with an offer that amounts to £29 million with clauses and we get one of Italy’s brightest playing prospects. Demme goes to Arsenal, who know mediocrity when they see it and like what they’re looking at. The German is a £21.5 million capture for their reserves.

To replace Mario Rui I move into the loan market as alternatives are few and far between, so why not put the problem off for a year? Juve’s Luca Pellegrini joins for the season, earning considerably less than we were spending on the Portuguese and, I think, represents an improvement. Sassuolo’s Jeremie Boga has expressed his intention to leave and is on their transfer list. We could use his talents as a squad player and acquire the winger for £13.5 million. To bolster our midfield ranks we go after Gaetano Castrovilli, an advanced playmaker who plies his trade currently with Fiorentina. I’ve been an admirer for some time. £18.75 million covers it. Sebastiano Luperto returns from loan, a young centre-back who is capable of being promoted to the first team. With him added we now have the four homegrown at the club players that I have really wanted – Insigne, Contini and Izzo are the others.

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Pre-Season 2021

England win the European Championships after picking Portugal apart 5-1 in the final. How many years of hurt has this victory cancelled? Having demolished their group, Mancini’s Italy go out to the Portuguese in the first knockout round, which is poor but isn’t enough to lose the manager his job.

Our pre-season schedule starts on 24 July with a visit to Carpi, a Serie C side that plays in the province of Modena. I’m away arranging transfers and leave the management of this one to Luigi Riccio, and it’s perhaps for this reason that an underpowered Partenopei can only draw 1-1. The home team have one shot during the entire match, from which they obviously score, while our efforts to overpower them results in a rugby score of chances, but just one reply, a late Insigne penalty to save our blushes.

Over in the USA, our run of friendlies begins with a game against the New York red Bulls, the American member of the RB family. Another Insigne penalty and Tonali scoring from a goalmouth scramble hands a 2-0 win in our laps. We play quite well here, though Politano takes on a gashed lower leg from a ‘Welcome to the US of A, mo fo!’ challenge that removes him for the rest of the schedule.

We nearly come a cropper in the New York City FC game. I experiment in the first half with a 4-2-3-1 formation, fielding Elmas in the hole. It’s a disaster, our attempts to overload the attack resulting in a 1-0 deficit at half-time. Panicking, I switch back to what we know and we score three second-half goals. Grimaldo bags a rare strike, a low shot that flies underneath Barbosa, and then Insigne caps things off with a brace.

Philadelphia Union are next. I have been after a new striker for a while and after enquiring after various players me trail leads me to Bayer 04 and Patrik Schick. The Czech international has played for his country in the Euros and scored the winner against Spain in their group tie. That seemed to be the sum total of his efforts however. Though Czechia make it to the Quarter-Final before being eased out by Portugal, Schick’s fairly dreadful and it’s perhaps this factor that makes his £27.5 million move to Napoli such an unpopular move. The fans are underwhelmed, and I guess I can see that when we’ve effectively swapped out Dries Mertens for… this? Schick, for his part, sees the transfer as the opportunity for a rebirth and scores a first-half hat-trick against Philadelphia. His first goal is the best, a delicate chip over the keeper that’s pure artistry. Castroville and Osimhen also score in a 5-0 destruction. It’s very good.

We now have a week to go until we face Barcelona in the European Super Cup, the match-up between the winners of the Champions League and the Europa victors. Eric Garcia has been involved in the Olympics for Spain so we have barely seen hide nor hair of him. He should be back in time for Barca.

Windsor Park in Belfast is the setting for this showpiece. The opposition are heavy favourites, and it’s easy to see why. Antoine Griezmann has been in stellar form for them. Frenkie de Jong controls things from midfield, and Ansu Fati and Coutinho are simply superb attacking midfielders. And then there’s Lionel Messi, the little god who’s just come off the kind of campaign that confers yet more divine status upon him. They’re impressive. They play like it too, putting us under pressure early, though Alex Meret plays like Dino Zoff, saving shot after shot. He’ll eventually be named man of the match. At the other end Victor Osimhen noses us ahead just before the break. It’s his last action of the game; he comes off with a slight knock, and we play the second with Insigne operating as a False Nine. Another burst of attacking goodness forces Clement Lenglet to tap the ball into his own net, before sub, Adnan Januzaj, pulls one back with a few minutes remaining. We waste time, play defensively (it’s what we’re good at), and claim the European Super Cup.

This victory is worth £4.11 million, a smashing little bonus. I deliver some personal praise to Alex Meret, who deserves it. The board are happy too; they have watched what they define as entertaining football so everyone’s a winner today. I think football is the real winner obviously.

Ahead of our last couple of friendlies Manchester City make overtures to right-back Elseid Hysaj. We barter them up to £26.5 million, a few million more than his value, and it seems that he’s on his way. I field the Albanian in the pre-season game against Atalanta, probably as a fond farewell to someone who has been a good club servant. Eric Garcia makes his first appearance for us here also. The match is generously attended by just under 35,000 locals. We win 2-0, two cracking goals from Lorenzo Insigne and Jeremie Boga, the latter a real crowd pleaser that provokes a celebratory cartwheel from the winger.

Hysaj joins Man City. Napoli are now showing a healthy balance of £61,092,907, but there is still more than twenty-five million in the kitty and I would like to use the two spare spaces in our squad to sign a replacement for the full-back, and a better back-up keeper than Contini. The latter is identified as Luigi Sepe, who currently plies his trade with Parma. The fee - £5.25 million – is reasonable, and the player is a former Neapolitan, so I could bring him in and loan out or even sell Contini. But then the red wall falls in my contractual negotiations with the player. He wants back-up status, which is fine, and a limited salary (ticks my box), but in there is the non-negotiable demand that he is named as vice-captain. There is no way on this good earth that I’m taking that away from Insigne, so the negotiation promptly ends there. Honestly, why would he be asking for that?

The player we bring in for Hysaj is a cut-price deal for Juventus’s Matteo De Sciglio, who is on their transfer list and costs £3.2 million. Similarly aged to the Albanian and presenting very comparative numbers, De Sciglio is happy to be paid less (Juve even throw in £10,000 per week towards his contract) and to play second fiddle to Di Lorenzo. Speaking of whom, Valencia have been after our starting right-back for some time and make an offer. I say they can talk when they meet my £40 million asking price, and to my surprise they agree. For a few days I’m left to sweat on this one. I’m wondering how to blow the money on someone really good to fill his boots (two words – Max Aarons), and then Di Lorenzo turns them down and the situation settles back to normal.

Our last friendly is a home game against Ajax, who draw a decent crowd. The Neapolitans who show up for this one are given a treat, an emphatic 5-1 win in which we flex our attacking muscles with two goals from Insigne, and strikes added by Garcia, Lozano and Schick. The Dutch get a very late reply from Magallan, their one shot on target of the entire match. By the time this one is done the visitors have brought on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, now a sprightly 38, more than a decade on from the when he played in Serie A for Milan.

Teams still want Di Lorenzo, and Grimaldo is on Sevilla’s radar, as we enter the last day of the transfer window. I’ve had my arm pulled in seeking out that elusive back-up goalkeeper. £4.7 million has been spent on Sergio Asenjo, the 32 year old Villarreal net custodian. It wasn’t easy to sign a keeper who’s prepared to play second fiddle. I could have nabbed Loris Karius on a free, but it’s Loris Karius. Asenjo doesn’t have that stench of failure. He’s a good alternative to Meret, taking on a modest salary and happy to be here. By this point I’m just relieved to have filled the last obvious gap in the squad.

Elsewhere, Milan’s Theo Hernandez goes to Chelsea for £38.5 million and that sends them to my door with an offer for Grimaldo. I reject it out of hand. The loss of their left-back is just one of a string of high-profile Serie A players leaving the country. Lautaro Martinez finishes at Inter and goes to Liverpool for a princely £73 million. The same amount is lavished on centre-back Milan Skriniar, who will now play for Barcelona. The Pool clearly don’t feel that Martinez is enough and shell out a further £49 million to acquire Andrea Belotti. We emerge as Italy’s biggest spenders, spunking out £114 million in total. We’ve recouped a similar sum, and there’s still nearly seventeen remaining with the wage budget reduced. Not a bad window at all.

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Meet the Boys 2021/22

After all the horse trading and at least one club legend stinking out some other place, I have what I feel is a better balanced and younger squad. Before going into the position-by-position write-up, here’s a grid that breaks down the players in order of priority. Homegrown in Italy players are shaded green. It's blue for those who are homegrown in the club.

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Goalkeepers

This unit is now decisively led by Alex Meret (Italian, 24 years old, 1 cap), who saw off the challenge of previous regular David Ospina  and kept clean sheet after clean sheet in 2020/21. Those are high standards to maintain, and the major criticism of him is that he was bound to look good statistically when he played behind such a good defence. In his favour Meret was world-class against Barcelona, who can breach Hadrian’s Wall with their attacking prowess. He’s well on his way to becoming a leading Serie A keeper. Behind him is Sergio Asenjo (Spanish, 32, 1 cap), replacing Ospina because he's happy playing as back-up. A highly competent choice with more than three hundred league games in his history, Sergio is a great distributor and smashing at communication. We know that we’re in safe hands with him. Finally there’s Nikita Contini (Italian, 25, 0 caps), retained largely for his homegrown status and showing few signs that he will emerge to challenge Meret at any point.

Right-Backs

Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Italian, 28, 16 caps) is an important wing-back for us and considered to be a leading Serie A player. Technically gifted and capable of putting in pinpoint challenges, the only doubts revolve around his injury record. I considered letting him go to resolve the matter, but he’s pretty loyal to the cause and I’m just as happy that he has decided to stay. He’s ably deputised by Mattia De Sciglio (Italian, 28, 39 caps), a consummate squad player who I’m delighted to welcome to the San Paolo. A fine role model and consummate team player, his numbers aren’t as good as Di Lorenzo’s but there can’t be many things that he hasn’t seen in the game and he’s looking forward to his fresh start.

Left-Backs

This is the province of Alex Grimaldo (Spanish, 25, 0 caps), in for his second term as a Neapolitan having enjoyed a good first season that was punctuated with significant injury lay-offs. A fantastic dribbler and good crosser of the ball, his hope is to eventually usurp Jordi Alba in the Spanish national team; greater robustness on his part will be necessary. I’m very pleased to welcome Luca Pellegrini (Italian, 22, 0 caps), here on loan from Juventus and considered to be one of the country’s bright prospects. Hard working and quick, he’s already keen to turn his stay into a permanent one, though persuading the Old Lady to sell will be an altogether tougher prospect.

Centre-Backs

A celebrated area of the squad that achieved great success last season, the line is led by captain Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegalese, 30, 51 caps), a formidable defender who must be up there with the best currently playing in Italy. We’d miss him if he left, which came close to happening when Manchester United bid for him in the summer. Happily, he had no interest in going. His regular partner in crime is Kostas Manolas (Greek, 30, 51 caps), close to operating at the same high standard. He has the height advantage to be a target in set-piece situations, otherwise he is a superb no-nonsense defender.

Our best alternative is now Eric Garcia (Spanish, 20, 2 caps), a free signing from Man City and valued at £24.5 million. The newcomer expects plenty of football and is going to get it – he has the potential to be as good as our starters, and with them both entering their fourth decade he represents a future for the unit. Mentally his powers are astonishing; he’s a smart cookie and it’s in the technical areas of the game where he specifically needs to develop. Armando Izzo (Italian, 29, 3 caps) had a very good first season back with the Partenopei, refusing to be overawed by the company he’s keeping and fitting in well. A ball-playing stopper with fine technical assets, Armando helps us to sustain a full-sized squad thanks to his homegrown status, and it’s for the same reason that we have promoted Sebastiano Luperto (Italian, 24, 0 caps) after a year on loan at Crotone. The fringe player has made a handful of appearances since signing from Lecce back in 2014 as a bairn. Now given his opportunity to stake a place and ready to be tested against lesser opposition, he’s being mentored by Manolas.

Defensive Midfielders

In the wake of Bakayoko and Demme both leaving the club, their pair has been replaced with Sandro Tonali (Italian, 21, 3 caps), one of Italy’s most exciting prospects and someone who played well for Milan in 2020/21. A deep lying playmaker who has already wormed his way into the international scene, Sandro has excellent passing faculties, and the sort of concentration levels that should be crucial as he patrols the gap between defence and midfield. Whilst I considered signing someone outright (Juve’s Mandragora was on my radar for some time), my feeling is that Stanislav Lobotka (Slovakian, 26, 32 caps) can serve here really well. He’s now in his second full season with Napoli, and I hope to test his ability to dictate the game’s tempo and depend on his high composure levels. As a central midfielder, Stan wasn’t entirely comfortable, especially when we were pushing for goals, so it seems more natural to use him further behind.

Central Midfielders

Fabian (Spanish, 25, 16 caps) is the star man here, someone I like to think of as our De Bruyne, with a superb passing range and skilful abilities that make him pretty much complete. He isn’t even at his peak yet; his capacity to improve still further is frightening. In the meantime, his goals and providing of assists are exemplary. Fabian’s advanced playmaker complement is Piotr Zielinski (Polish, 27, 66 caps), a star operator but someone who at times played within himself in 2020/21. Like his midfield partner, Piotr loves a killer ball and is all-round brilliant in his role technically; unexpected things can happen when he’s around. My feeling is that he’s yet to hit the heights consistently, nevertheless he was an ever-present last year.

It's important to have good alternative to our two main men. Eljif Elmas (Macedonian, 21, 29 caps) is an advanced playmaker/Mezzala who’s capable of producing real moments of excitement. Another great passer, Eljif’s real ken is in his off the ball movement, his restless tendency to put himself into advantageous positions and help out, though he’s a very long way from being the finished article. A work in progress then, but his final impact might be explosive. The unit’s new face is Gaetano Castrovilli (Italian, 24, 1 cap), snapped up from Fiorentina for an £18.75 million fee that may turn out to be a real bargain. He fits in well with the group, bringing his own high-level technical ability, and he’ll work for hours. Smart and unpredictable, he was a positive presence during pre-season and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do.

Attacking Midfielders – Right

After a season on loan with us Matteo Politano (Italian, 28, 18 caps) signed permanently from Inter. It was good that his transfer was pre-arranged, as Matt turned out to be excellent, scoring twelve goals and providing eleven assists as his constant creativity on the wing was a real boon. His abilities with free kicks and corners were another big plus. He played for us as though he’d been here for years, fitting in perfectly from the start and was named the Serie A Best Player of the Season for 2020/21. The only concern is a slight risk of injury, and it’s for this reason we are fortunate to have Riccardo Orsolini (Italian, 24, 1 cap). Still improving as a footballer, Ricci’s natural enthusiasm made him try things that didn’t work out when he first got into the side, but since then he’s developed into a team player of some renown, physically excellent and working hard on honing his technique. We’re all excited about having him here; he should provide stiff competition for Matt.

Attacking Midfielders – Left

Napoli’s best attacking player operates here. I’m talking of course about Lorenzo Insigne (Italian, 30, 47 caps), the short-arsed Neapolitan who was totemic for us in 2020/21. We might have sold his regular partner in crime when Dries Mertens left for Arsenal, but this team leader has resolved to plough on, torturing full-backs with his acceleration, flair and technique, scoring a stack of goals to help our cause. The message is clear – field Insigne, whether on the left or up front as a False Nine. If he is operating further forward then his position reverts to Hirving Lozano (Mexican, 26, 54 caps), a wonderful and unpredictable inverted winger who can use his pace to devastating effect. Capable of playing happily on either flank, Hirving’s downside was a degree of inconsistency that could make him anonymous in certain situations, notably against sides we were expected to beat soundly. It’s this that made me sign another winger, Jeremie Boga (Ivorian, 24, 8 caps), who had a thrilling season with Sassuolo before being put on the transfer list because of his contractual demands. Now playing for a bigger club, this former Chelsea man is a fantastic dribbler, dangerous on the ball and fully capable of striking with purpose and venomous accuracy. He’s a natural force but not the brightest, and his lack of ability in putting himself into good positions will need to be worked upon.

Strikers

The aim last season was to slowly ease Mertens out for Victor Osimhen (Nigerian, 22, 15 caps), which worked as the Belgian legend steadily waned in terms of his powers. Vic was a mega-money signing last summer, rather frivolously spent if you ask me, and it’s placed undue pressure on him as the transfer fee is a lot to live up to. Still, he emerged as 20/21’s top scorer, a pressing forward who takes advantage of his status as the fastest sprinter at the club, his uncanny ability to put himself into good positions, only really let down as he fluffs a number of his goalscoring lines. To back him up we have signed Patrik Schick (Czech, 25, 36 caps), the onetime Roma advanced forward who is developing into a reliable presence for his country. The complementary bag of tricks he brings compared with Vic’s blunt force spearhead is staggering. He isn’t as quick (who is?), but he’s a better finisher and brings superior levels of vision to the table. It will be fascinating to see how he settles in. He was great for us in pre-season, and has much to prove after the supporters have complained that we might inherit the poor scoring form he was in during his latter days as a Bayer Leverkusen forward.

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August/September 2021

There’s a chance to open the season with a win, a home game against Benevento before the international break kicks in. This is as nice a start as we could have hoped for, testing ourselves while taking on a lower mid-table side, managed by Filippo Inzaghi and now featuring Gennaro Tutino, a winger from our depths who they recruited. We should win with some ease and we do, sending thirty-two shots in their direction while they rack up a single, off-target effort. Disappointingly, all that pressure adds up to one goal, a twelfth minute strike from Riccardo Orsolini that should have been added to many times. Osimhen is wasteful in attack and is eventually replaced with Insigne, but defensively I have no complaints.

As the players head off to play for their countries, I watch the draw for the Champions League. As Serie A and Europa League winners we are in the first pot, heading Group G and in a cauldron with Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk and SC Freiburg. To my mind it’s a pretty straightforward set-up. We have avoided superior second seeds like Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea. Napoli’s Champions League record isn’t astonishing. We have failed to get past the Round of Sixteen, losing out in the past to Chelsea, Athletic Bilbao, Real Madrid and Barcelona, so to get anywhere beyond this point will be an achievement. In truth there’s plenty of time to win this competition, so I would be very happy if we reached the Quarter-Final.

The priority, beyond trying to retain our Serie A crown (for which we are predicted to finish third, behind Juve and Inter) is to claim the Italian Cup, which will pretty much allow me to move to another country. The draw for the first round has us facing one of Verona or Pescara. Get past them and it’s either Cittadella, Salernitana or Belotti-less Torino in the Quarters. This sets up a likely semi against either Juventus or Roma, the former now managed by Mauricio Pochettino, presumably a surer hand for the Old Lady than the failed experiment of Pirlo.

We’re at home again for the visit of Atalanta once the international break is over. The only injury we’ve suffered is a sports hernia to Nikita Contini, a month’s layoff to a player who is far from crucial to our cause. Things are made worse in the first few minutes of the match, however, when Luca Pellegrini is forced off during his debut. A crunching tackle from Rafael Toloi sees the young left-back replaced and facing five to six weeks out with sprained knee ligaments. It’s especially a shame as seven Italians have been picked for our starting line-up.

The first half is an exercise in frustration. Despite playing with a balanced mentality, respecting the visitors’ ability to break in numbers, we pummel them. Gollini’s goal is leading a charmed life, the woodwork coming to his aid more than once while brittle defending breaks up a number of good attacks. Victor Osimhen is having little luck out there. More than capable of putting himself into one-on-one situations, his efforts go wide or are saved, all until the forty-ninth minute, when he finally produces a finish that billows into the bottom corner. Moments later, a corner is broken up, only for the ball to wind up back with Matteo Politano on the left flank. Advancing into the area and evading challenges, the winger puts himself to place his shot from an acute angle. It defies everyone and puts us 2-0 up. And that’s how it remains, a fine performance from the boys against a very good side that at times seemed intent on leaving more than just Pellegrini requiring treatment.

Our Champions League adventure begins with Ajax at the San Paolo. We clobbered them in pre-season and I hope they are just as easy in a competitive match. The Dutch visitors are of course one of the competition’s illustrious names. They might not have the cachet of the 1995 competition winning side, but their reputation for producing excellent young footballers (who soon get picked off by the vultures) remains intact. The one to really keep an eye on is Brazilian winger/forward Antony, 21 years old and having scored seven goals in six league fixtures this season. Lisandro Martinez is a top class ball playing defender who I’m kind of surprised is still here. They also sport two Partenopei who were sold to them by me, Kevin Malcuit and Faouzi Ghoulam.

Our victory here isn’t as impressive as the friendly that didn’t matter. Ajax showcase David Neres, the tricky winger who with millions more in the bank account we might have been interested in signing. The players react with visible fear each time he’s on the ball, however Alex Grimaldo is inspired at left-back and keeps him quiet, indeed we restrict the visitors to one off-target shot. Patrik Schick fires us into the lead shortly before the break, a great moment and particularly for him, as he arrived suffering the stigma of a ten-match non-scoring record. Hirving Lozano adds a second on the hour mark. Fabian’s cross is nodded on by Zielinski (having a busy and good game), and the Mexican actually rounds the keeper before slotting into the net.

In the Europa League we’d be handed a few hundred thousand for winning a group match. Here’s it’s £2.46 million. The board are very happy with that.

As Barcelona target Bentancur and Dybala is a target for Manchester United, we appoint Claudio Ranieri as a scout. It seems a bit weird to hire such a managerial legend to go out and source players for us, but there it is.

We’re away to Udinese at the weekend. Our record against them isn’t exemplary. While the Friulians shouldn’t be in our class and are a far cry from the team that once fielded Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale in the same team, they knocked us out of last year’s Coppa Italia and have a good history of nullifying our attack. I field the big guns, notably Insigne and Politano, in an effort to right that old wrong. Luca Gotti manages a fairly pedestrian side, though teenage midfielder Martin Palumbo is clearly a future star and is being scouted by us heavily. Obviously Udinese don’t want to sell him, but as his renown develops I expect Palumbo to exert some pressure of his own… That is, if he doesn’t turn into the new Di Natale, happy to be brilliant in a smaller side and resisting our overtures.

Can we get something from this one? Nope; Udinese’s bogey team status remains intact as we labour to a 1-1 draw. I think it’s all going to be okay when Eljif Elmas scores a first-half screamer, a real sign of what the young Macedonian can produce. Then it’s all undone by a moment of madness, when a routine pass back from Manolas to Meret leaves the keeper clearing it clumsily to forward Kevin Lasagna, who slams his shot into the top corner. Vexing stuff. I’m particularly disappointed with our keeper, ordinarily a figure of complete stolidity but who costs us the victory here. Politana is today’s casualty, ruled out for a fortnight with a gashed upper leg. The upside is Mattia De Sciglio, who makes his debut and seals up the right-back role. Nothing passes him.

A new report reveals that we are the fifth highest at commercial income in Serie A. Our £39.5 million is dwarfed by the riches raked in by Juventus, obviously, but we’re slowly getting there. In midweek we are hosting newly promoted Cittadella. Finishing second in Serie B, this should be a home banker for us, and I’d love to see us do the business emphatically, with a note that often enough these games send the players to sleep.

I ring the changes for this one. Luperto plays at left-back to give Grimaldo a break. Izzo partners Garcia in the middle. Boga gets his debut for us on the left wing. The stage is set for a Hirving Lozano hat-trick. He’s playing on the right and tortures the visitors with three goals of incisive greatness. Stanislav Lobotka pops up with a headed finish from a corner kick, and Gaetano Castrovilli adds a fifth late in the game, his first for Napoli. Cittadella actually impress me. They aren’t very good, but they know how to compress space, which brings the best out of us as we need to thread our passes through the eye of a needle; all the same, the quality gap is plain to see, especially with our potency in attacking areas.

Brescia Calcio are based in Lombardy, so it’s another long trip northward for us on Saturday as we take on Diego Lopez’s newly promoted outfit. We’re facing Shakhtar in midweek and can, I think, afford to leave out a few of the big guns here. Insigne is the notable rested player, as Lozano starts on the left and later will be replaced with Boga. Focus however is on Sandro Tonali, a midfielder we signed in the summer from the Rondinelle. Nerves are his. Some players love coming up against their old teams and showing just what they can do. Others, like young Sandro, feel they have a lot to thank their alma mater for, what they’ve done for their personal development, but it’s character-building for him to be in our line-up.

Any concerns are wiped away in the eighth minute when Tonali scores from a direct free-kick, a wonderful effort that was taken from outside the penalty area. Victor Osimhen then scores two, the second from the spot and the first a lovely bit of opportunism as Mateju is dwelling on the ball in his box and is robbed by Orsolini, who provides the simple cross for the Nigerian to slot home. Riccardo Orsolini then scores on the hour mark. Ernesto Torregrossa pulls one back, arguably something they deserve as they have pressed with intent, but then Gaetano Castrovilli nets from another long-range effort to restore our four-goal cushion. 5-1 is an emphatic final score. I’m happy with just about everyone, particularly Grimaldo, Osimhen and Tonali. Lozano has one his lesser days and doesn’t complete the ninety. Garcia is at fault for Torregrossa’s reply; Izzo finishes the match in his place.

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September finishes with Shakhtar Donetsk at home. Things look good domestically, where we have a one-point lead ahead of Juventus to head the table. The Turin giants seem to have the brakes off this season and look much better; we will need to stay ahead of them. It appears to me that so much of the Old Lady’s cause relies on Ronaldo. He’s leading the scoring charts once again, but if anyone can nullify him (and that’s asking a lot, in fairness) then is there much else to them? As for our Ukrainian opposition, this is a good chance to top the Champions League group. They will face us with new signing Divock Origi on their left wing, and Dodo at right-back, the latter a player we were scouting in the event that Di Lorenzo left. They’re good, Champs League regulars in fact, but the scouting report suggests that we are better.

Not that the first half demonstrates anything of the sort. It’s nervy and bitty; scoring chances come at a premium. 0-0 at the break and I’m telling the boys that I am displeased with them. Hirving Lozano listens to me, scoring a second half hat-trick that puts us completely in the driving seat. As the visitors pile forward in the last few minutes to find a reply, we break and Lorenzo Insigne scores his first of the campaign as a consequence of complete defensive confusion. The Ukrainians are good at injuring players. Zielinski is forced off early, fortunately for a negligible knock. Grimaldo fails to complete the game after an industrial Dodo challenge that leaves him with a bruised ankle. It could have been worse, but the absence of a fit, natural left-back will probably force me to be creative against Genoa.

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October 2021

Another international break looms, but before that we are playing Genoa at home. Vincenzo Torrente’s side are doing better than last season, when they flirted throughout with relegation, but this has all the makings of a sound home win to complete a strong start to our Serie A title defence. As it turns out the match is an exercise in frustration. With many of our regular starters rested and the likes of Boga, Lobotka, Elmas and De Sciglio taking part, we’re fluent enough without ever finding that final cutting edge. Osimhen is notably wasteful, Schick little better. The visitors have their chances also, though never enough to fully trouble Meret. It takes bringing Insigne on late and relying on the little man to pick out Riccardo Orsolini, who at last finds a way past Vodisek, to land us with the points. Not a brilliant showing. Sure, we bag the win, which is what matters in the end, but this one smacks of the wastefulness we exhibited in spades during so-called winnable ties last year.

When we get back we face a straight run of Lazio, Milan and Juventus, so these points could make all the difference. There’s part of me that feels the boys perform better in fixtures where they really have to up their game. Complacency against allegedly lesser teams, the ones they are supposed to win, can find them performing sluggishly, as against Genoa, so maybe more of a challenge will help to stir their passions. Maybe.

No new injuries incurred during the break, but as always the more involved international stars return to us fatigued. I am ever grateful that, having rotated players carefully to meet the various challenges we face, national managers just use them as they want without a care in the world for how they will be feeling at the end of it. I have to make a decision to field my best available eleven for the away game at Lazio. SC Freiburg follows in midweek, and even though the Romans are in lower mid-table they are assessed to be the stiffer challenge.

After finishing third last season, Simone Inzaghi’s Eagles are enduring a tough start to 2021/22. Fifteenth currently, David Carmo and Maximilian Wober have been signed to improve their defensive effort, which hasn’t clicked into place yet. This is, on paper, a good time to play them, but the comeback has to start somewhere. Hopefully it won’t be against us. My nerves are quelled when Lorenzo Insigne puts us ahead early. This is lovely for its approach play. Lazio are trying to compress space, like any good team should, so the way Fabian and Tonali spray passes around to send defenders scuttling after shadows creates the gaps that allow Grimaldo to put the cross in for the Italian’s opener.

We’ve been better than the home side, and it’s with some annoyance that they equalise after around half an hour. Their goal is Lazio’s one significant attack of the half, and results from the breaking up of a Napoli corner, Joao Mario emerging with the ball and picking out Ciro Immobile, who evades the attentions of Manolas before placing his shot beyond Meret. This angers us into action. Another corner for us ends in Kalidou Koulibaly heading in, a quick restoration of our lead. Victor Osimhen scores something of a wonder goal early in the second half to kill off their challenge. By this time I am already replacing players, bringing off Fabian, Zielinski and ultimately man of the match Insigne, and wrapping them up in cotton wool for the tests that lie ahead.

It is a good thing that we win here. Elsewhere, in the Turin Derby Juve open a can of whup-ass on Torino, winning 6-0 with Bentancur in particularly sparkling form. Pochettino is doing far too professional a job here. I miss Pirlo.

SC Freiburg then, the Bundesliga side from Baden-Wurttemberg that term themselves the Breisgau Brazilians. Within a fairly pedestrian group they have been identified as potentially the weakest, and with Milan at the weekend this could be our best opportunity to bench some of our more leading lights. It’s a difficult balancing act, rotating players, hoping that superior fitness will prevail. As we travel into Germany, I pore through the latest round of scouting reports. They keep slipping in the dossier on Manchester City keeper Ederson, a high recommendation who would set us back more than £60 million. This is sheer fantasy football. There’s no way we can afford him, even if the Brazilian is clearly world class. You want me to bankrupt the entire club, huh?

The Germans turn out to be a difficult opponent. They play the Gegenpress and play it well, however like ourselves they are mixing Champions League football with domestic matters and quickly begin to tire. Victor Osimhen has us ahead before the break, slotting home a delicious, chipped assist from Elmas that is viewed by the defenders as a kind of personal insult. As the home team wilts the yellow cards start to fly. Multiple bookings, and when Lienhart sees his second card for flooring Elmas from behind their challenge is over. We’ll take a 1-0 away win any time. Another two and a half million in the bank, and a step closer to qualifying from our group.

Uncle Carlo Ancelotti is back at AC Milan. An unimaginative managerial appointment perhaps, but everyone’s favourite elderly relative has ‘previous’ here and is a steady hand for them. They lost Hernandez in the summer, hence the endless sniffing around Grimaldo, however they can now call on former Neapolitan Jorginho, a £33 million signing, and then returned to Chelsea to snap up uninspiring striker Michy Batshuayi. As a replacement for Zlatan he’s not the most inspiring, but that’s more or less an invite to him for scoring the winner against us. Fifth in Serie A but giving us a rough time of it last season, they aren’t the sort of opposition I look forward to facing.

On a sunny afternoon at the San Paolo we win 3-0, by some distance our best result against the Rossoneri. Milan are difficult and Donnarumma is always too good to be beaten with anything but special striking, but fortunately we have Lorenzo Insigne, who scores a brace. He also sends in the corner kick that is cleared messily by red and black shirted defenders, leaving Riccardo Orsolini in space to volley in our third. The winger is on for Politano, who lasts most of the first half before going off injured – thankfully it isn’t a serious knock, but the boy’s fragile and it’s a concern. In the meantime, I am slightly worried that we are little more than the Lorenzo Insigne Show. We are always better for the presence of our totemic Neapolitan winger; then again, when he puts on displays of this high quality then who’s really complaining?

We now have the unimaginable luxury of a week without football before travelling north to play Juventus. The Old Lady is breathing down our necks this season. Their victory away to Inter in midweek puts them a single point behind, so despite our good form we are in serious danger of losing top spot here. At least we don’t have to plan for Ronaldo, who is out with a hip injury. For our part, Hirving Lozano has sustained a dislocated jaw in a training ground set-to and will be unavailable for a couple of weeks. This is bittersweet news. The Mexican is a quality and unpredictable forward, though that very unpredictability means I am never sure what he’s going to produce. I’m warned that Osimhen’s appearance in this game will activate a transfer clause, wherein we will owe Lille another £2.3 million. I don’t care; it wasn’t me who agreed the madness of his massive fee.

I wonder if the loss of Cristiano actually makes Juve that little bit more dangerous. He was the focal point of their attacking effort, and without him perhaps the likes of Chiesa, Douglas Costa, Morata, Dybala and Kulusevski play better as a unit. For a much-hyped top of the table clash, the match is a damp squib, a forgettable and largely highlight-free 0-0 draw. That’s fine by me. The two groups of players basically cancel each other out. Juve have scored a lot of goals, but we concede hardly any and it’s a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object as we toil to a stalemate.

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More importantly, we have retained first place within a table that has the look of developing into a two-horse race. Look at who else makes up the top six in Serie A. Inter, Roma, Milan and Lazio can’t keep being as bad as they have been, but they are all dropping points with the generosity of a Conservative government slapping the backs of their buddies with Coronavirus contracts, and already they are slipping off the pace.

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November 2021

Lorenzo Insigne is currently considered to be the highest rated player in Serie A. I agree. In the goalscoring stakes no one comes close to Luis Muriel’s nine strikes for Atalanta; Orsolini and Osimhen lead our path with four apiece. Like last season we are the division’s leading scorers, but those goals come from a variety of personnel, which is exactly how it should be. I’m still in awe of Sebastiano Esposito, Inter’s young gun who is on loan with Sampdoria and has scored five goals in seven appearances. He will be mine, oh yes…

November features six matches, and two more in the Champions League, with an international break thrown in. The domestic challenges don’t compare with what we faced in October; Fiorentina away looks like being the trickiest in the schedule. Things are simpler in Europe. Beat SC Freiburg at home and we have qualified for the knockout stages. The Germans were rough and ready in the away tie, and I’m expecting more agricultural challenges back at the San Paolo. Time to order in the extra-strong shinpads, perhaps.

The only real criticism the board have made of me so far is that we have not been as effective from set-pieces as we were last season. Our first two here come from just those situations. Eljif Elmas scores from a corner, before Politano’s free kick crashes back off the crossbar and Kostas Manolas slots home from the rebound. Elsewhere, Elmas scores two more to claim his hat-trick and Patrik Schick also finds the back of the net to produce a fearsome 5-0 home victory. All our goals are scored in the first half. We can move out of top gear after the break, sensing Freiburg’s lack of threat, and when Almog is sent off for a grisly challenge on Boga it’s all over.

A good way to achieve qualification then, and now it’s back to Italy to entertain Hellas Verona. There’s celebration for Orsolini, who’s called up to the Italian national side in light of Chiesa’s injury. Roberto Mancini had been busy telling me how little he rated our winger, so I can only imagine his chagrin as he’s forced to turn to a player he believes to be bobbins. Go on and show him, Ricci.

The less said about the Verona match, the better. As is becoming a weary trend, we do everything right against them, apart from score. They register one off-target shot to our endless number of efforts. In the end, a Kalidou Koulibaly header from Insigne’s corner is enough. But we could have bagged ten. Osimhen is particularly wasteful, and I hook him at half-time because of warnings that he might have sustained an injury. Schick takes over, to little effect. By the end I am producing origami from my note paper.

A two-week breather for the Interlull, Orsolini returning to us two caps to the better, and straight into an away fixture at SPAL. Winners of Serie B in 2021, the quality gulf is glaring. It takes around ten minutes of this one before I realise that I should have picked none of the Partenopei’s international players for this one. They’re knackered. Fabian is never the most robust ninety-minute man, but he’s done in within half an hour. Castrovilli has to be removed about a third of the way in, for a knock that turns out to be nothing more serious than fatigue. SPAL start energetically, inspired by forward Ramirez, which sounds like just my luck, to be stung by an enemy of the Boro supporters, and it takes most of the first half before I realise that he isn’t the dread Gaston, but Ignacio Ramirez, a fellow Uruguayan but there the similarities end.

Despite the worries over player fitness we are easily good enough to blow away the side known as the House of Este. Matteo Politano scores a brace. Kalidou Koulibaly heads home a corner, and there’s a first Napoli goal from Jeremie Boga, the winger intent on covering half the pitch before beating Berisha.

It's a good thing that we win here. Juve are matching us result for result, demolishing Cittadella 5-1 as they continue to breathe down our necks. They are developing the kind of consistency against sides they should beat in the way we did last season. There’s no room for error here.

In the Champions League we’re off to the Johan Cruijff ArenA (never understood why they have a capital ‘A’ at the end) to face Ajax. The intensity of this game doesn’t really rise above tepid levels. We’re through, why worry? Well, the concern is that Shakhtar could wrest top spot from us, and while they’re beating Freiburg to move within a point we’re only good enough for a 1-1 draw. It’s an even day; I tell myself that this is because Ajax are a lot better than the lowly points haul they have achieved in the group. Eran Zahavi scores early. Hirving Lozano, a former PSV man who understands how to get one over on bitter Dutch rivals, finds a second-half equaliser.

Whether we want to finish first or second is anyone’s guess, really. The argument that we’ll get a kinder draw in either position can’t be justified when I look at the make-up of the other groups. It won’t be resolved until early December, when we travel to the Ukraine for a match that will decide the outcome.

Two Serie A games remain to finish the month. The first is a home tie against Bologna. Third in the division, a decent number of points away from the title race but playing very well all the same, the Petronians have veteran full-back Lorenzo Di Silvestri to thank for much of their success. Now a sprightly 33 and supposedly entering his stud years, the Italian right-back has generated a superb average rating of 7.52. Defensively very capable and ensuring Lozano has a quiet game, it’s fortunate that there’s little to them elsewhere. For our part, Eric Garcia scores his first for the club deep into first-half injury time, knocking in Politano’s corner kick. Elsewhere we are brittle and unadventurous. Schick starts. He’s unmemorable. Elmas and Zielinski do little, not so good from a pair of supposedly top tier advanced playmakers. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Fiorentina are hitting the top ten under the aegis of Michael Laudrup. This is good work considering they sold Castrovilli to us, then lost top defender Milenkovic in a £25 million deal to Atletico Madrid, and finally were divested of Bartlomiej Dragowski, one of the better keepers in the division and wearer of a glorious hipster beard. The Pole now turns out for Freiburg. Laudrup’s replacements are modestly acquired. PSG centre-back Thilo Kehrer is now here, as is Jesse Lingard, a free signing from Manchester United. The latter starts on the opposite wing to Ribery, a pair of veteran players who can cause problems on their day. This isn’t it. We run out as straightforward 3-0 winners. Victor Osimhen scores an incisive first half break, before Sandro Tomali’s direct free kick wraps up the points. The presence of Felipe Caicedo in their forward line fails to strike terror in our hearts as the home team produce little and hand victory over in a nice, gift-wrapped package.

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And win we must. Juventus are four points behind, with a game in hand, which I feel they are more than capable of taking good advantage of to keep the pressure up. They really want their title back. Bologna are now thirteen points further back, so you can see for yourself what the situation is in the division, how it’s shaping up for the remainder of the campaign. It’s very much like how Serie A played out back when Juve were serial victors and Napoli bit at their heels, except this time we are the champions and there’s a requirement on us to defend our crown. Can we?

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December 2021

Just three league games this month, along with the completion of our Champions League group schedule, before the winter break kicks in and we all get to enjoy Christmas with our families. Beyond that is the opening of the January transfer window, a number of Napoli players on other teams’ radars (more on this below), all taking place during a packed, New Year schedule.

We open with a home game against Cagliari. Going into this one, we know that Juventus have travelled to Lazio and been forced to a 0-0 stalemate, so it’s an opportunity to put a little buffer room between them and ourselves. We make hard work of it, because of course we do. The 1-0 victory we achieve will do little to appease the board's demand for classy entertainment, however a win’s a win and the Sardinians do not represent generous opposition. They aren’t in our class, but they know how to put in meaty challenges, racking up the bookings and forcing Elmas and Osimhen off the field early with thankfully negligible knocks. Patrik Schick, on for the Nigerian, scores our winner, his first for us in Serie A, so we can look back on a job completed at the end of a tie that is far from one for the ages.

Next up in midweek are Shakhtar Donetsk at the NSC Olympskyi. A point in Champions League Group G separates us and all we need to do is not lose here in the Ukraine. In my view we have been by far the better team so far, carving out a +12 goal difference while the opposition have tended to ease past their opponents. This counts for nothing if we lose. Shakhtar’s shining light is Marcos Antonio, the latest in a production line of strong Brazilian talent finding itself deep in the former Soviet Union. A central midfielder no doubt playing for his inevitable transfer to Manchester United, the midfielder is an assists machine, a pocket Mezzala who our scouts believe I should seriously look into adding to our ranks.

We’re welcomed with peels of sleet, and a home team that plays at a meandering pace. They force one good save from Meret, otherwise it’s defined by the battle at the other end between Osimhen and eccentric keeper Loris Karius. It’s one the keeper wins. At his best Vic can find the sweet spot in spectacular fashion, but this isn’t one of those days. His best opportunity comes when a routine back pass-from Dodo is weak enough for the striker to latch onto, an easy chance, only for Karius to dash out of his box and divert the shot into touch. Oh well, a point was all we required, and that’s how it ensues, a tired tail-end of the schedule and not helped when I make a gaffe of one of the substitutions (admittedly not as bad as the time I brought a keeper on to replace the striker). We’ve won the group, and in a few days’ time we will know exactly who looms in our future.

Before that, we get to return to Italy just before setting off once again, this time for Sassuolo. Juve are entertaining Milan, and instigate clobbering time as a Douglas Costa brace helps ease them to a scary 4-1 victory. We know we have to get a good result against a team we consider to be beatable yet deserve respect. Hirving Lozano puts us in front after a fine passing move between the Mexican and Osimhen, before the latter earns us a penalty after pulling a Swan Lake in the box. Politano’s shot is fired straight into the arms of the keeper, which looks costlier still when Domenico Berardi scores an equaliser in the forty-second minute. This is especially irritating, as Berardi has been specifically marked out as a danger man, then he turns out to be exactly that. After the break Politano’s corner kick is headed across the line by Eric Garcia, a goal I suspect to be ever so slightly offside, then we settle back into prevailing, holding on to our lead, replacing tired bodies as we see out the time.

The Champions League First Knockout Round takes place the next day, several hours’ build-up and UEFA self-congratulation, and then the dropping of the balls. Of the teams we could get, I would hope to avoid Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea and Porto. The alternatives are Real San Sebastian and Zenit. We’re drawn against the latter, a winter sojourn to Mother Russia, but for me it could have gone worse. Of the other Italian outfits, Juventus are taking on Bayern Munich in possibly the tie of the round. Lazio will have to negotiate the challenge of Chelsea.

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The youth intake preview offers little to get excited about. There’s a decent looking centre-back in there apparently, but I’m advised not to expect much and suspect that it will be an instance of looking elsewhere for the future of the squad.

December’s reduced schedule finishes with Sampdoria at home. I would like to end 2021 with a big result and the Genoese look made for us. They’re tenth and continue to be dependent to an extent on 38 year old striker Fabio Quagliarella. He’s still a consummate centre forward for them, like a lesser Zlatan, and I still recall with affection an old Championship Manager 2001/02 save in which I managed Fiorentina, then relegated to Serie C2, in which he took a starring role in helping our long, slow climb back to the top. There was a time, back when Quagliarella was busy trying to play for as many clubs as possible, when he was on our books, playing pretty well in between spells with Udinese and Juve.

We are playing Sunday’s evening match, and by the time we enter the arena the news filters through that Atalanta have done us a favour by prevailing over the Old Lady via a 2-1 victory.

Roberto D’Aversa wrong-foots me by not selecting Quagliarella for his starting eleven. Instead he’s gone with Sebastiano Esposito, half the veteran striker’s age and far more of a quick, raw handful. Then Insigne comes off. The forward has pulled a hamstring, which will ensure that he spends the winter break convalescing. Lozano comes on and lasts around fifteen minutes before himself exiting via the stretcher. This time it’s a torn hamstring, a far more serious injury that will remove him from our affairs for up to three months.

In the meantime, we win 3-0. It’s a good victory, overshadowed by the loss of Lozano but pretty much exactly how we want the script to work out. Eljif Elmas shoots us into the lead, before Gaetano Castrovilli heads past Audero. Osimhen has once again missed a string of chances, and is brought off for Patrik Schick, who justifies his presence with another headed goal, this time more artful as his effort loops over the keeper.

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The year finishes in fine fashion then. With the catch-up matches played elsewhere, leaving all of Serie A on sixteen games, we are six points clear and sitting pretty, with the considerable caveat that there is barely any room for error this time around. Concerns for January include Lozano’s injury, exacerbated by the African Nations competition that will rob us of the services of Koulibaly, Boga and Osimhen for a time.

Ahead of the January transfer window, here’s the list of Napoli players who are on other teams’ wanted lists, and what I think of the prospect that they will move…

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January 2022 - Part 1

The New Year opens with some promises to keep and awards to announce. Fabian and Grimaldo have both complained to me that they aren’t playing as often as they would expect. I agree to give both more time in the field, as they are fair concerns to express. Of course, they are talking to the newly re-inaugurated Manager’s Manager of the Year, though that counts for nothing. Alex Meret wins the World Golden Glove, a recognition of the outstanding number of clean sheets for which he’s responsible. Both he and Kalidou Koulibaly are named in the year’s World Team, rubbing shoulders with some very illustrious company. The latter is the African Defender of the Year. Victor Osimhen is picked as the best African striker, with Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech picked as the overall best footballer from that continent.

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Eric Garcia is our best trainer at the moment. He’ll need to be. There’s a new focus on him with Koulibaly playing in Africa for up to a month. Our away day at AS Roma presents a number of selection problems. Lozano is out for the foreseeable future. We can’t choose from Kouli, Boga or Osimhen. Insigne isn’t quite right yet, but can be picked for the bench. Garcia partners Manolas at the back. Politano moves to the left wing with Orsolini on the right and Schick playing as striker. I’ve fired off a loan offer to Arsenal for Gabriel Martinelli, to boost our options. The potential sticking point is the Brazilian’s wish to be a regular starter. We can’t offer him so much playing time so it’s with fingers crossed that I load squad rotation status into the bid. Martinelli, young and capable, would be a decent addition to the side. It’s his youth that matters; we’re up to the limit in squad numbers, and he will escape registration.

Roma are a good side, with a couple of players – Pellegrini, Veretout – who I really admire. That said, few improvements have been made to their ranks and there’s a reliance on golden oldies like Dzeko and Mkhitaryan that have slowed them down considerably. The game is a super dull 0-0. We have the lion’s share of scoring opportunities, but neither Schick or Insigne get to take advantage. I think we might have broken the deadlock when Garcia nets from Politano’s free kick, however he’s clearly offside. Late on, Veretout puts in a dangerous challenge on Politano that has him seeing red. I order the players to press their advantage, but they seem to interpret my instruction as ‘play for the draw’ and the time simply peters out.

It's never a bad result to force Roma to a draw, however everyone is aware that we need to keep on winning to retain the advantage over Juventus. They win 2-0 away to Verona and reduce our lead to four points.

Schick and Orsolini were especially poor in the Roma game. Better is expected, and there’ll be a stiff test to come with Inter Milan at home the following weekend. Now managed by Ernesto Valverde, the opposition have been forced to cope without two big money transfers departures in Martinez and Skriniar. The latter is replaced with Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico, which is in my eyes a very sound choice. Their main strengthening is on the flanks, a fair area to work on as previous manager Conte had little time for attacking wingers. Their incoming players are Julian Draxler (£24.5m from PSG), Marco Asensio (from Real Madrid, £17m) and Stephan El Shaarawy, at one point the bright young talent of the Italian scene, now at the Giuseppe Meazza, having negotiated a move from China. I’ll confess the winger was on my radar, but his enormous Shenhua wages looked like a barrier and Inter are paying him the best part of two hundred grand per week.

This one is seen as a potential revenge mission for Politano, a Nerazurri reject and now playing a starring role for our good selves. Instead, this becomes the stage for Patrik Schick, played in attack by default and justifying his selection with an excellent hat-trick. His second is the best, not so much for his poacher’s goal but for the approach play by Castrovilli, who seems intent on weaving and dodging his way past every opposition player before putting in the killer cross. Riccardo Orsolini adds a fourth to make up for his leaden work against Roma. Towards the end, Grimaldo fouls Eriksen just inside the box, rather a cheap penalty to give away, and either Romelu Lukaku makes no mistake, or Meret continues his proud record of being completely incapable of saving a penalty. Still, 4-1 is a smashing result against a side that concerned me.

Sebastiano Luperto leaves on loan to Bordeaux, and Gabriel Martinelli signs for us. With Lozano unavailable for up to two months still, his input will be most valuable. Milan are after Grimaldo to the extent they are making actual cash money offers for him. I’ll accept no less than thirty-five million.

Cup matters take over. We’re up against Hellas Verona in the Coppa. It’s a competition we really have to try and win, and we entertain the Mastiffs on a mild and sunny January evening that makes me really appreciate working in a place like Naples. Martinelli starts on the left wing, and at half-time is moved into the striker’s role as Schick has been frankly anonymous. The Brazilian is marginally better, but it’s Lorenzo Insigne who makes the difference, introduced after the break and then going off on a solo run and firing beyond the keeper from a tight angle. A great goal, befitting the player and making the difference as we produce a leaden 1-0 result. There are fewer than 17,000 supporters in the ground for this one, and they’re right to stay away. We have played complacently, and I’m forced to let the players know it.

Hopefully they can raise their game at the weekend, when we face Internazionale again in the Super Cup Final. Last season, we did Juve to clinch the trophy and it’s something to defend, though in my heart I would far prefer us to work through the league schedule instead. The opposition will showcase new signing Donyell Malen here. The striker has sealed his £66 million transfer from PSV as their replacement for Martinez. He doesn’t have quite the Argentinian’s finished product, but he isn’t far off and we will have to respect him. Meanwhile, Milan refuse to pay the £34.5 million we require to allow them to talk to Grimaldo. It’s a waste of time; the player isn’t even interested in going.

The Super Cup is staged in Saudi Arabia, at the King Saud University Stadium. Inter score in the first few minutes when Stefan De Vrij heads in Asensio’s free-kick, and then we labour- and completely fail – to produce anything in reply. Schick is awful, Politano and Zielinski dreadful, Insigne surprisingly crap. Even after Barella has been dismissed for a dangerous tackle we are unable to press our advantage. Basically Inter have managed us, neutralised our attacking threat. Grimaldo and especially Fabian come out of it well enough; the rest are poor. They triumph in the cheapest won trophy you’ll ever see, and while the Super Cup doesn’t really matter ultimately, I’m gutted.

Juventus beat Bologna on the road and move to within a point of us. We’re back in Italy and returning to the Coppa, facing Torino at the San Paolo. They’ve just appointed Hermann Hreidarsson as their new manager and no one knows exactly what to expect from him, however they aren’t as good as we are and we really do need to put the Inter defeat behind us with a win. It’s no classic. Despite peppering their goal with shots Sirigu is imbued with the spirit of Walter Zenga, dealing with everything, and if the opposition know how to do anything then it’s to defend in numbers. In the end, a classic set piece goal, Armando Izzo heading in a bullet from Zielinski’s corner kick, which makes the difference. Despite the narrow margin, it’s a well worked victory that leaves me sanguine. Less assuring is the news that Juventus await in the Semi-Final, which means two additional matches against the Old Lady. In the other half of the draw Inter will play the winner between Atalanta and Lazio. At least the sort of complacent work we put in to let Udinese ease past us last year won’t be an issue.

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January 2022 - Part Two

The month wraps up with two away league ties before Udinese at home. The first is against Benevento, trapped in nineteenth and with only SPAL keeping them from the absolute bottom. I fend off a transfer bid from Guangzhou for Lobotka, who will need to play in this one as Tonali is suspended. Playing in their weird yellow stadium, with palm trees invitingly just outside, the first half is far from a classic. When Politano is playing as disinterestedly as he does here, you know this is going to be a motivational challenge. He ends up being subbed off for Riccardo Orsolini, who scores soon after. Then Riccardo Saponara is dismissed for a horrific tackle, and the fragile floodgates quickly open. Lorenzo Insigne scores. Stanislav Lobotka unleashes a howitzer from outside the area that is far too powerful for Montipo to stop, and finally a fine first for Gabriel Martinelli. It finishes 4-0. Given the statistics – all in our favour – it’s what we deserve. Benevento have half their players booked in a showing where they are simply unable to cope.

An infinitely tougher challenge comes in midweek when we’re at Gewiss Stadium to play Atalanta. Sixth in the table and not far from our level, I’d normally be happy by escaping with a draw, however Juve beat Cagliari the day before so we need to win in order to retain first place. It’s Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini’s birthday. We help him celebrate by being poor in the first half, coughing up possession and struggling to cope with their counter-attacks. Nevertheless, it’s still goalless at the break, and things seem to be going according to plan when Matteo Politano gives us the lead via a close-range finish. But the home team don’t deserve to be behind, and more or less resent their way back up the field to equalise, a cracker from Remo Freuler that Meret can’t do a thing to stop. After that we try to rouse ourselves back into the action. Normally at this stage we can ease off, swap out tired players in readiness for the next match, but all we can do here is flood forward and conjure a winner. Which we do not get. Neither does our play justify one. Despite finishing the stronger side, 1-1 is a fair final score.

Patrik Schick has been in poor form since being handed the start at striker in Osimhen’s absence. The fans know it. I know it, and I think the player does too. We chat about it and he insists that he can improve. The Nigerian is still contesting the African Cup of Nations, alongside Koulibaly and Boga. As they all play for strong teams each one has made it to the Quarter-Final stage, however the Super Eagles are tied against Cote D’Ivoire so I should have at least one of those players back before too long. As for Koulibaly, we don’t actually miss him so badly. Eric Garcia is playing so well in his absence and improving at such a rate that all appears to be going well at the back. Who knew?

The Czech striker is bad again in our home tie with Udinese. These games are typically low-scoring, needling affairs, but he’s especially anonymous, as though terrified of making a mistake so produces next to nothing instead. He’s off at half-time. Lorenzo Insigne both gets tackled to win a penalty and scores from the spot-kick to give us the lead, and that’s what makes the difference. The visitors are unable to threaten, and we look happy enough at 1-0, though it’s a tired effort generally that makes us look as though we are ready to concede Serie A to Juventus.

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Sure enough, the Old Lady emerges from their away day at Sassuolo with a powerful 3-0 victory. Their range of attacking options is simply terrifying, and it’s something we will have to be ready to cope with as we face them in the Coppa Italia next. At least we’ll have Jeremie Boga back; the Ivory Coast winger is returned to us following their loss to Nigeria. For obvious reasons, I would have preferred Osimhen instead.

Coming to the close of the transfer window, I resolve to do something about the striker situation. Schick hasn’t worked out, this much is clear. He was a gamble and I based part of my attempt to sign him on the basis that he was once very good for me in Football Manager 2018. I can’t be doing with his slack-jawed work on the pitch however, the fact he’s been given all of January to strengthen his bond with a Napoli supporter-base that has grave doubts about him and he has gone on to waste it. On Borussia’s transfer list is Odsonne Edouard, a forward I was very interested in signing over the summer. We got as far as personal negotiations before he handed me a list of demands that I point-blank refused to meet. That ended our interest and put me instead into Schick’s orbit. The Celtic player ended up going to Germany, and obviously it hasn’t worked out there. His single appearance for Dortmund offers a clue as to his malaise.

I place a loan offer for him, which will compel me to pay his £66k weekly salary in full, plus £2.9 million per month to his club. There’s an optional £52 million optional future fee in his contract, which I have absolutely no interest in meeting. This can only really happen if Schick makes way, so I offer him out on either loan or a permanent transfer. Lyon slap £15.25 million down for him. I accept, and just like that the disaffected Czech is taken off my hands. Edouard’s in, and Schick is out, the sort of dazzlingly quick deadline day bit of business that suggests Napoli is currently in chaos. We aren’t. It was just the case that we needed to make a fast decision, and it has been made. I think Edouard is the better player of the two, and I look forward to seeing what he can do for us.

Still, the £12 million loss we made on Schick hits me hard. It hasn’t been a good deal on my part. Of the players I brought in over the summer, they’ve all been either pretty good (Boga, Asenjo, Pellegrini) or outstanding (Tonali, Garcia, De Sciglio, Castrovilli). Schick’s the outlier, a costly (for us) acquisition who simply hasn’t worked out as I hoped he would, and that’s on me.

Nothing else happens. The feigned interest in the likes of Fabian, Zielinski and Lobotka becomes nothing more than that and the world’s focus is elsewhere. Donyell Malen’s £65 million move to Inter is the big news of the window. Rodri has left Manchester City for PSG, and to replace him Guardiola has signed Manuel Locatelli for the sort of fee I can only dream of commanding. Max Aarons is now a Chelsea player, and the Blues have also gone for Marcus Edwards and Luis Suarez (the young Colombian forward rather than the toothy Barca legend).

February contains five Serie A fixtures, five opportunities to wrest back our control of the division. The schedule includes Lazio at home, almost certainly the most difficult of the challenges ahead, whilst in the Coppa we have Juventus twice, and the first of our Champions League knockout matches against Zenit. The African Cup of Nations finishes on 5 February when the Final takes place in Stade De Football D’Olembe, Cameroon, after which we should have Osimhen and Koulibaly back to strut their funky stuff in Neapolitan blue.

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February 2022

It’s Juventus at home in the cup first, and with an away day at Cittadella to follow at the weekend I choose this as my fixture for which to select the best eleven. Before any of that happens I am asked to register my changes for the rest of the Champions League. It’s not possible to include Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian was brought in as ballast and there simply isn’t the space to add him, however his youth means he can play in Italy without the need for labyrinthine registration rules.

Clearly, the Coppa Italia is a massive deal for us. Win it and I can leave Italy, or at least look for jobs in other countries so that the Glory Hunter challenge can be progressed. I like it in Napoli, despite the club’s resources, which have to be spread rather thinly and occasionally involve making some difficult decisions e.g. the fans aren’t putting the flags out over my decision to let Mertens go, and when I consider what Schick did in his role instead, I have to concede that they have a point. Anyway, it’s a competition that really matters, and at some point we will have to get past Juventus along the way. Will this be the time…?

Despite a clear lack of match fitness Odsonne Edouard is selected to start against Juventus. It’s this that I think contributes to a middling performance – it’s never easy to make your debut in a climate like this, not with Bonucci and De Ligt keeping an eye on you – but he wins an early free-kick, from which Eric Garcia heads beyond Szczesny. A humiliating moment for the Pole, who gets his fingertips to the shot but can only parry it further into his own net. Juve’s front four of Ronaldo, Dybala, Kulusevski and Morata is terrifying, but the former takes a knock thanks to the close attentions of Di Lorenzo and is forced off. This brings on Chiesa, hardly a terrible change for them, yet still they can’t pierce our goal.

Pressing deeper in the second half, we are able to hurt them on the break. We get a corner, which results in a second Garcia headed goal, almost an identical one to his first. Later still, a counter-attack sees Politano pump the ball forward to Gabriel Martinelli, who’s on for Edouard and is dashing through the visitors’ defence. A glorious shot into the top corner makes it 3-0, which is fantastic way to finish the tie.

Going to Turin and prevailing will no doubt be a challenge, however we’ve given ourselves a fine cushion and hopefully we can do it. In the other tie, Lazio put three past Inter and will take an identical scoreline to ourselves over to the Giuseppe Meazza. This result does much to raise morale in the camp. The game was played before a capacity crowd and the supporters are chuffed with what they’ve seen. There’s a renewed spring in our step as we head towards the away game against Cittadella at the weekend.

Juve beat Sampdoria, so once again there’s a requirement on us to produce. Jeremie Boga makes the starting line-up so that I can rest Insigne for the Old Lady rematch. Boga’s fellow Africans, Koulibaly and Osimhen, are returned to us following their Cup of Nations exploits. Neither comes back with an especially good tale. Nigeria were beaten by Togo in the Semi-Final and then lost the subsequent third-place playoff. The Togolese went one step better, winning the Final 2-1 against Kouli’s Senegal team. The beaten finalists have every right to be disappointed. They were pre-tournament favourites, and to lose at the last hurdle is sickening. Neither returnee is fit enough to make the starting line-up against Cittadella but they are named on the bench. It’s good to be able to call upon an almost fully able side once again. Now, only Lozano – out for up to a further three weeks – is unavailable.

Unless we put six past Cittadella I’m going to get pelters from the media here. We actually win 2-0, a fairly straightforward display of power in which I get to see the best and the worst from Jeremie Boga. The move in which he scores starts when he passes to a home defender. Dashing back to pinch possession back, he then gets himself into position to slot home the goal that puts us in front. Very much later on, Kostas Manolas scores from a free-kick, and it’s done. A routine victory; perhaps not the show of dazzling football that everyone hopes to see from us, but a strong outing that maintains the pressure on Juve. One of us will crack eventually, but who?

At Juventus Stadium we are helped by the home team opting not to really try until the second half. The best chances fall to us, and while we fail to score I’m happy enough for things to remain at 0-0. After the break Pochettino’s rocket up their backsides results in a more positive display; still nothing to show for it though, and some stiff defensive work sees us safely over the line. We’ll take on Lazio in the Final, after they produce a 1-1 draw with Internazionale. Though the venue for the May showpiece is a neutral one, by unhappy chance the Olimpico has been pre-selected, meaning we will need to win at Lazio’s home ground.

Still, all that’s a concern for another day. It’s straight back to league commitments for us, and a home draw against Brescia. In the relegation zone and routinely suffering nosebleeds whenever they enter the opposition half, this should be straightforward, and it is when we emerge from a 6-0 shellacking. We’re one-up in the first couple of minutes after a messy goalmouth scramble sees the luckless Jesse Joronen poke the ball over his own goal-line. Victor Osimhen scores from close range soon after that, and before the break Gaetano Castrovilli nets directly from a twenty-five yard free-kick. Odsonne Edouard replaces Osimhen at half-time to build on his match fitness and scores his first two for Napoli, before Fabian caps off the victory with a bullet shot from distance. It’s a great all-round performance, a morale-booster, and even the hard-pressed Partenopei board claim to be happy with this showing.

The good news keeps on coming, as we thrill to Roma’s 2-0 victory over Juventus later that evening. Edin Dzeko’s brace causes the damage. We’ve regained the edge in Serie A. Elsewhere, Uncle Carlo is sacked by Milan after leading them to tenth place. This prompts me to look at the available jobs out there – Fulham and Sevilla, neither of which especially appeals. With any luck, we can clinch the Coppa and then I will be able to look at vacancies more seriously.

In midweek our thoughts turn to Europe, our Champions League tie with Zenit St Petersburg. The evening before, Juve lose again, a 3-1 home reverse against Bayern – are they beginning to crack? We’re in Mother Russia, unsure of what to expect against the team from their capital. They field a pair of former Premier League centre-backs – Dejan Lovren and Davinson Sanchez – and their star man is Sardar Azmoun, an Iranian international striker who has reaped twelve goals from thirteen league appearances. We also need to pay our respects to midfielder Daler Kuzyaev, a tough box to box presence; the scouts rate him very highly, and he seems to be their beating heart, a highly determined presence.

The game is played in near-freezing conditions. Sheets of sleet welcome us into the Saint Petersburg Stadium, and it’s perhaps this – being removed from our preferred climes of Mediterranean loveliness – that blunts our attacking spark. Lots of shots, not many of them on target, our best chances coming from set-piece headers that Manolas and Koulibaly fail to put away. At the other end the anticipated clash between Meret and Azmoun turns out to be over-hyped, in reality not much a factor. It’s 0-0, a scoreline I would normally be upset about but I am able to tell the players that they were unlucky rather than not good enough. We’ll complete the round in early March.

We cough up first place at the weekend, when we’re playing in Genoa. It all seems to be going well early in the second period when Insigne fires in a dramatic cross that Odsonne Edouard powers into the net. Minutes later, Insigne wins a dubious penalty, but his shot is parried into touch by the keeper. This ends up mattering, when a late equaliser from Prince-Desir Gouano serves as a decisive body blow. Surprisingly, the defender who misses his challenge and allows the scoring opportunity is Koulibaly, who's about as reliable as we can ever get. I guess anyone can have a day off, even the best of them, but it matters as our efforts to pummel Genoa back down fail to produce a breakthrough and we have to accept a 1-1 result.

Our catch-up game is away to Torino. They’re now in nineteenth place, the implication being that Andrea Belotti made all the difference and, without him, they’re toothless. Last season’s league leading scorer is now with Liverpool and has made a pale handful of appearances, maintaining a decent rate of converting his chances but far from the unstoppable force that he was in Turin. After Genoa I’m keen for us to make amends and we do, putting four unanswered goals past the opposition and generating a further slew of chances. Eljif Elmas, who is hankering after a new contract, scores early. Riccardo Orsolini gets a brace, one of his better ‘running everywhere at once’ showings, and Lorenzo Insigne pads out his personal account with a nice, close range finish. As a consequence of this one, we pay Bologna £3.7 million, a clause in the deal that landed Orsolini into our laps. It’s his fiftieth Napoli appearance, and he’s been splendid.

We’re back in first place and there’s a need to retain it, with Lazio at home completing the month. We’re able to name Lozano on our bench for this one. The Mexican hasn’t taken part since December, when he was in fine fettle for us. I think we will need his versatility and scouring nous before the campaign is done. Lazio are in third place, a long, long way off the pace but gaining points at a fine rate of around two per game and in Luis Alberto showcase an unimpeachable star. Milinkovic-Savic, Correa and Immobile constitute further attacking talent, but hopefully they are less capable at the back.

As it is Simone Inzaghi seems to sense his own side’s deficiencies by fielding an overly defensive formation. Three centre-backs, two wing-backs and a defensive midfielder, with Correa and Immobile set out as remote figures in attack. The channels to their front two aren’t obvious, and we are able to cut them off with some ease while putting two past Strakosha to win the day. A brilliantly worked move finds Riccardo Orsolini’s shot clipping the post before going in, and later Kostas Manolas heads beyond the keeper from an Insigne corner to complete the victory. The Romans are tricky opposition, so to prevail here is really important.

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Luis Enrique is named as the new Milan boss. We’ll take them on next weekend. Juve put five past Torino to maintain the pressure and ensure that we need to get a good result at the San Siro. For the time being, we can be happy with a three-point lead in the division. It’s been hard fought. We will play our main rivals for the trophy in March, a fixture that is looking increasingly decisive in the destination of this season’s title.

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