Walter Mazzarri left Napoli for Inter in the summer of 2013, creating a vacancy in Naples that was filled by Rafael Benítez. The two teams meet at the San Siro on Sunday, and suspicions are mounting that neither man will be in a job for much longer.
Napoli finished an impressive third in Serie A last season and won the Italian Cup, but Benítez’s second campaign will probably be his last unless he can quickly get the team looking like they’ll challenge for the title.
Currently seventh in the standings, Napoli is eight points adrift of league-leading Juventus after only six games. Inter are even more distant: 10th, two points behind Sunday’s visitors.
From Marca: “Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis is already thinking about next year and one person who does not feature in those plans is current first-team manager Rafael Benítez.”
Then again, here’s Di Laurentiis on Twitter: “[Benítez] is doing a great job”.
He’s not. The season was badly wounded before Serie A had even kicked off when Napoli lost a Champions League qualification playoff to Spain’s Athletic Club, dooming them to the buzzkill that is the Europa League. This evidently pissed off star striker Gonzalo Higuain, who didn’t leave the Santiago Bernabeu dreaming of away games against Slovan Bratislava and Young Boys.
Napoli want to be A Big Club, but you can’t be one unless you’re in the Champions League. Sure, you might have money and style, but it doesn’t count for much if you’re on the wrong side of the velvet rope.
Being forced into the second-rate continental contest also seems like a poor return given the club’s transfer spending since the summer of last year, even if much of the money was raised by the $90 million departure of imaginary-gun rights advocate Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain.
It’s easy to imagine Benítez as an eternal nomad, going from club to club, relationship to relationship, in a futile attempt to find the sort of love he found from the fans at Anfield, where long-lasting passions were ignited by the crazy 2005 Champions League title win. But that triumph was followed by, well, not much in the next four years, save for an FA Cup and an EPL title near-miss in 2009. The soccer was rarely swashbuckling unless Steven Gerrard was on the ball, but Liverpool gave him time and enduring affection. To others, the Spaniard was spiky, petty, sensitive and strange, especially after this pre-meditated swipe at Manchester United’s “Mr. Ferguson”.
Replacing his old foe José Mourinho at Inter in 2010, Benítez lasted just six months, though he was probably doomed from the start. Naturally, he wanted to put his own tactical imprint on the team, but that meant departing from Mourinho’s winning formula. It was never going to be easy following in the wake of The Special One’s treble.
Wanting a stronger squad, Benítez thought that lifting the Club World Cup gave him enough power to issue an ultimatum to the club’s former owner, Massimo Moratti. He thought wrong, just as he did at Valencia, where he fell out with the director of football over transfers and resigned just weeks after winning La Liga in 2004.
It took him two years after Inter to return to coaching, and when he did, it was at Chelsea in 2012, where it turned out that all the rancor he’d inspired among rival fans while at Anfield had not been forgotten. Supporters under the misguided impression that Chelsea was somehow “their” club and not the executive toy of a Russian oligarch attempted to get him fired from day one. If not before.
That was only ever going to be a short-lived marriage of convenience, yet Benitez burnished his credentials by winning the Europa League and shepherding Chelsea into the Champions League places. That credit line won’t last forever, though, and a third straight spell at a top club lasting less than two seasons wouldn’t be a good look, especially since Napoli seemed like a perfect scenario: enthusiastic fans; a talented team; a supportive owner; a strong first season as a solid foundation.
Mazzarri’s travels haven’t been so dramatic, but for his part ahead of Sunday’s meeting, you wonder if he regrets swapping Napoli for Inter: The dominant Italian club of the second half of the 2000s, for sure, but one that’s lately been worse than the team he ditched. Like Napoli, Inter seem to be regressing after a solid first year under a new coach, and both men have been in charge long enough that they can no longer lay the blame for poor results on their inherited squads. Even now, Mazzarri is still in Mourinho’s shadow given the Portuguese’s outstanding achievements at Inter, just as Benítez was unfavorably compared to him at Chelsea.
It’s that particularly perilous challenge – that of rebuilding a team after the departure of an all-time great, something one person who’ll be in the stands knows all too well. David Moyes, having failed in his attempt to succeed a legend at Manchester United, is rumored to be attending the match at the San Siro, a few days after he did a series of interviews underlining his readiness to return to action. Given the year he’s had, he might just be the perfect man for the job.