The Rough Homecoming

Higuaín. It was his fourth missed penalty in seven tries this season.

He has come a long way. Madridista at heart, unable to break into the first team in the days of his youth, he went into exile to the lower leagues in Spain before eventually hanging his boots at the tender age of 26 – knowing that persistent, nagging injuries ruined his career. Los Blancos lent him a helping hand and enrolled him as a coach of their youth teams, where he’d gain his first managerial experiences – at least until he realized that he beloved club is never going to make him anyone more than “an assistant”, “a youth coach” or “some yet another faceless, anonymous, backroom staff member”. So he has left home again and spent next twenty years travelling the world as a manager, botching or taking some chances he’s been given in the meantime. From afar, he watched his favourite club go through one of the ugliest dry spells in it’s history, fruitlessly chasing the tenth Champions League win by appointing most excellent managers from abroad and most praised football stars from all around the world. Until, eventually, the impossible goal was achieved last year and after a trophy-less season, his homeland in the Spanish capital finally called him back.

During those 20 years, his memories became much more colourful than the memories in his royal realm he was exiled from. He never had the chance to guide Zinedine Zidane, Raúl, Roberto Carlos or Ronaldo – but does it mean his story holds lesser value? On the contrary. Picked for the Valencia job as only the fourth candidate, he immediately took out Real Madrid in the very first game of VCF’s 2001-02 campaign – the same Real that lifted the most precious European club trophy just nine months later. While there were taking out team after team, marching straight to the final at Hampden Park in Glasgow, their opening day slayer nearly lost his job at Estadio Mestalla. After a string of insipid draws, Los Che went to Barcelona – and they were trailing 0-2 at halftime. The man in question knew that a defeat to Espanyol would mean an unemployment for him. However, in the second half, midfielder Francisco Rufete threw his manager a lifeline, scored two goals, Adrian Ilie added the third and Valencia left Estadio de Montjuïc with three points in the pocket. That season, Rufete and his teammates all became the sensational Spanish Champions…

Four years later, Real Madrid’s unwanted child has proven that insane comebacks with backs against the wall are indeed his thing. 2004-05 has been easily one of the strangest Champions League editions, where big favourites dropped out in unexpected circumstances and PSV Eindhoven came insanely close to their first appearance in the final match. Eventually, it wasn’t the Dutch team but the glorious AC Milan who went to Istanbul and met Liverpool there. Liverpool – the team that barely advanced from the group stage, that needed extreme bus parking against Juventus to go through quarterfinals and that took out Chelsea only thanks to a ghost goal that was pronounced legal by Slovakian referee Ľuboš Micheľ. Compared to that record, Milan looked nearly immaculate – and the Italians proved that in the first half in Turkey, which they overwhelmingly won 3-0. Then, the guest from Madrid pulled off his magic again, subbing in Dietmar Hamman for Steve Finnan and setting up for a 3-5-2 formation. The Reds scored three goals, came back from the dead, survived the extra time and won it all on penalties. Insane.

Were those two memories going through the managers’ head when the dire situation from them happened again on Sunday? It’s possible. Heading to their final game of 2014-15 Serie A season, Napoli were hosting a game with Lazio – their direct rival in a battle for third and the final Champions League spot in Italy. This game shouldn’t even mattered in the first place. Biancocelesti had a terrific season, managed to hold on to the third place for the most of the season and would’ve gone to San Paolo as tourists – if only they saved one point in a derby game at home, against Roma. Alas, they’ve lost to their eternal rivals 1-2 a week ago and arrived into the shade of Mt Vesuvius with one and only task: to not lose. Napoli made that task much easier in the first half of what was the last meaningful game of this season in top domestic leagues. After José Callejón missed a 200%, one-on-one chance with Marchetti, after Marco Parolo summed up his wonderful season with a long-range screamer, after Antonio Candreva broke away from all SSCN defenders and buried it seconds before half-time – Naples were already starting to mourn their lost chance.

Nobody really predicted what would’ve happened in the second half. It was nothing like what we usually received from Serie A football this season. Instead of taking a calm, tactical approach, the team that badly needed to make an improbable comeback totally went for it – and the other team didn’t do much to prevent that from happening. Whether it was their manager’s inspiration, a random chance saw and taken or just desperation to collect €12 million prize for the appearance in a CL’s group stage – Napoli have truly shown what a football all-in means. Just like Lulić did in the first half before setting up Candreva, Hamšík managed to steal the ball in Lazio’s final third, sprayed a through ball to Callejón who had no trouble at creating a tap-in for Higuaín. Less than 10 minutes passed – and Koulibaly used his strength to simply tear down Felipe Anderson. The Frenchman played the ball quickly to Dries Mertens, who saw Basta’s indecisiveness at making a tackle and passed to Higuaín before he could’ve been dispossessed. It wasn’t the cleanest strike in ex-River Plate striker’s career, but it was enough. Napoli were just one goal away from the Champions League!

At this point, the winning goal was just a matter of time. After all, just two minutes before Higuaín’s second strike, Parolo has made a foolish tackle on David Lopez, collected his second yellow card and left his teammates outnumbered. Mertens, who slept through the first half, must’ve had some coffee during the break, as he went on to repeatedly destroy Lazio’s flanks once a glimmer of hope appeared. Ghoulam and Maggio improved too and, at the same time, visitors could not keep the floodgates closed once the momentum was stolen from them. If only Lucas Biglia wasn’t suffering from injured ankle… Without his leading midfielder and defensive ace, the best Stefano Pioli could do was bringing Cristian Ledesma on and hoping for the best. The gods were kind to him immediately following the equalizer: after a superb buildup, all Mertens had to do was putting the ball past Marchetti to score the winner. And so he did – but de Vrij chased that shot all the way to the goalline and cleared it in the nick of time. Still, even with that miraculous save, it looked like the game will soon conclude with something like 5-2 scoreline for the hosts.

The main character of this story must’ve already seen the final, bittersweet pleasure of his Napoli spell coming around the corner. Exactly two years and three days ago, Aurelio De Laurentiis hired him at San Paolo with just one condition in mind. He demanded Scudetto: the trophy Partenopei did not win for over 23 years, since Diego Maradona led them to triumphs. Upon taking charge, new SSC boss had a perfect chance to do what he loves the most: to bring in bunch of players from Spain. Those were the players he had faith in; players he knew how to manage well. Because his transfer budget was limited, he cashed in on Napoli’s brightest star, Edinson Cavani, who departed for PSG. Richer by whooping €64.5 million, new Azzurri commander started buying. Pepe Reina, Raúl Albiol, José Callejón, David López, Jonathan de Guzmán, Higuaín… those were all players with serious La Liga experience, now transplanted to Italian pitches. They were enough to claim the third place in Serie A last year and to closely battle it out with Dortmund or Arsenal in Champions League – but that was it. Both then and now, Juventus turned out way too strong.

This campaign was supposed to be different. Bianco-neri again ran away with domestic honours, but at least Napoli had a good shot at lifting the Europa League. After getting dispatched in CL preliminaries by Athletic Bilbao, Partenopei outplayed Sparta Prague, Young Boys, Trabzonspor, Dynamo Moscow and finally, Wolfsburg, to reach the semifinal. The massacre they pulled off against the German side has been particularly impressive: only few visitors ever left the Volkswagen Arena with a 4-1 winning margin. Because of this game, as well as Fiorentina’s and Roma’s successes, the all-Italian UEL final used to be a serious possibility. Used to be. In the semis against Dnipro, Higuaín & Co. would suddenly lose all their finishing qualities and miss one decent chance after another. Robbed by the referee with a blatantly offside goal that stood, Napoli needed to score in Dnipropetrovsk to stay afloat. Somehow, on a rainy and windy May evening – they didn’t. Eliminated, they could only sit and watch their hated rivals from Piemont taking out Real Madrid and going to the Berlin final – to potentially capture the treble…

Cheers for the future in Spain – the past in Italy didn’t go so well…

Rafa Benítez failed. The man responsible for it all, the man Naples once welcomed with high hopes, never came close to meeting his employers’ demands. Out of a legion of players he aquired, only Callejón and Higuaín turned out to be worth a shot – and even them had their lows. Yesterday, Karim Benzema’s former rival in Madrid was one penalty away from going down in SSC’s history. He blasted it over the bar, Sergio Ramos style. Callejón must’ve had a nightmare regarding the missed opportunity in the first half. But if those two had bad game, what can be said about others? For instance: David López, who never performed on a level that would justify bringing him in to replace Valon Behrami. Michu? Zúñiga? Both fell victim to the injuries. Albiol? Had numerous good games this season, but also few stinkers. de Guzmán? If not for a hat-trick against Young Boys, he’d be remembered as an utterly average signing. Ironically, it was Sunday’s offender, Algerian wing-back Faouzi Ghoulam who’s made the best impression through this season – but his red card that evened out the battle against Lazio still left a shadow on an otherwise good season.

And now, Rafa himself is gone. His tale is like a giant circle – and it has just closed for the third time. After twenty years of adventures, he’ll be taking charge in his beloved Real Madrid this summer. He’s going to enter a dressing room divided by Gareth Bale’s underwhelming performances; a dressing room too small, too packed to fit Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego and his ruthless appetite for goals. It will be him, who’ll resolve the main issue of Los Merengues’ midfield, which is the complete lack of a proper DM. Knowing Real, it will be him, who’s going to decide Karim Benzema’s fate and authorize Iker Casillas’ replacement. It will be him to decide the details of yet another big transfer to the club. It will finally be him on a quest he knows so well: to topple the iron favourites and win the league against all odds. Back then, he had to dismantle teams like Deportivo, Manchester United and Juventus. This time, it’s going to be worse: the one to beat is Barcelona. Rafa – man made of tactics, precision, control, rotation and Alex-Fergusonesque unwillingness to praise his own players. Is this truly the man Santiago Bernabeu needed?

Whatever the answer is, Real Madrid is going to change. There will likely be new formation, new, probably higher level of defensive organization and new approach, allowing players like Jesé, Fábio Coentrão or Javier Hernández to fully participate in the teams’ ventures instead of just being bystanders. Benítez just has to remember that trophies are the absolute priority. After all, his predecessor and La Decima author was out of the door after just one cupless season!

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