The southern squad has been built with astute market decisions — no exaggerated spending — that have enabled team chemistry to build year after year. Napoli’s starting 11 is virtually the same as it was last season and the squad’s core hasn’t changed since Rafa Benitez coached the club in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Yet Napoli appears vastly improved from a year ago, and holdovers like Dries Mertens, club youth product Lorenzo Insigne and captain Marek Hamsik — in his 11th season with the club — have guided the team to its best start in history with nine wins and a draw in 10 matches.
More than a quarter of the way through the season, Napoli holds a two-point lead over fellow unbeaten club Inter Milan and is three points ahead of six-time defending champion Juventus. “We’re reaping the benefits of a long-term plan that began during Benitez’s two years and has continued with great results under (current coach Maurizio) Sarri,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said.
De Laurentiis was criticized during the offseason when Napoli spent less than 50 million euros ($60 million) on new players, a fraction of the more than 200 million euros (more than $250 million) shelled out by big-spending AC Milan, which was purchased by a Chinese group in April.
French leader Paris Saint-Germain and its energy-rich Qatari owners recently spent a world-record 222 million euros ($260 million) on just one player, Neymar. Abu Dhabi-funded Premier League leader Manchester City — which Napoli hosts in the Champions League next week — has spent nearly $500 million since Pep Guardiola was hired as coach last year.
Napoli’s only acquisitions over the offseason were winger Adam Ounas from Bordeaux, defender Mario Rui from Empoli and forward Roberto Inglese from Chievo Verona — each for the relatively modest sum of about 10 million euros ($12 million) — and Inglese was left on loan at Chievo.
Neither any starters nor decent reserves were sold, despite lucrative offers for center back Kalidou Koulibaly and others. Instead, Napoli spent its money on contract extensions for Mertens (a four-year deal that included a salary boost from 1.5 million euros to 4.5 million euros per season) and Insigne (a five-year deal at 5 million euros per season).
“This could be our year,” Insigne told Italian daily La Repubblica. “That’s why none of us considered other offers.” Extensions for Napoli’s two most talented players sent a necessary signal after striker Gonzalo Higuain was sold the previous offseason to Juventus for an Italian-record record 90 million euros (then $99 million).
Perhaps Napoli’s best addition was signing journeyman coach Sarri from Empoli in 2015. While Sarri had never coached a major club, he became an expert at assembling squads with the parts he collected upon arrival during his time spent at every level of Italian soccer — including amateur and semi-pro teams.
It was Sarri’s stroke of genius that made Mertens the standout center forward that he is today, moving the Belgium international from the wing to a “false 9” position following an injury to Arkadiusz Milik early last season.
“My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner,” Sarri said. De Laurentiis rescued Napoli from financial ruin in 2004, restarted the bankrupt squad in the third division and quickly returned the team to the top division, where it has become a constant contender without ever encroaching on UEFA Financial Fair Play rules.
Napoli has finished in the top three in Serie A in five of the last seven seasons and is now on course to win its first title since Diego Maradona led the team to its only two championships in 1987 and 1990.
Displaying a free-flowing and fast-paced attack, even the likes of City coach Pep Guardiola have labeled Napoli the most attractive team of the moment in Europe. “We have faced one of the best teams of my career, probably the best,” Guardiola said after City’s 2-1 win over Napoli last week, which marked the first time that City was tested this season.
Added Genoa coach Ivan Juric after his squad was beaten 3-2 by Napoli on Wednesday: “For all of us who love soccer it’s fabulous. They’re playing the best soccer right now and as a soccer lover I can’t help but root for Napoli.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas in Manchester, England, contributed to this report.