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How Napoli's revamp made them a stronger bet for Serie A, Champions League progress

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Why Liverpool's loss to Napoli is a 'new low' for the Reds (2:19)

Steve Nicol and Craig Burley react to Liverpool's 4-1 defeat to Napoli in the UEFA Champions League. (2:19)

It began last winter. Napoli announced that captain and native son Lorenzo Insigne had signed for Toronto FC and would leave at the end of the 2021-2022 season. The Azzurri finished third in Serie A, returning to the Champions League group stage after two years away.

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Between clinching a spot in Europe's most prestigious tournament and a credible title challenge, most believed Napoli would go all-out in the summer, bringing in brand-name attackers, experienced defenders and a world-class goalkeeper. After all, the problem has never been money, not since Aurelio De Laurentiis purchased the club in 2004.

Napoli needed a boost to sustain a run at the scudetto, given the consistent collapses in April that would see them slide down the table. Last season, with the Partenopei playing host to Fiorentina, the visitors knocked them down to third with a 3-2 victory. It was nearly as painful as the 3-0 loss to the Viola in April 2018, when a victory could've meant overtaking Juventus at the top of the table. In between, their three away defeats in April 2016 saw Napoli ultimately fall nine points short of the Bianconeri, causing this author (and millions of others) to beg the soccer gods for a victory against Frosinone and a Champions League group stage berth rather than hoping for a third league title.

Speaking of the Champions League, certainly the Napoli management team knew that getting out of the group stage -- another bogey for the club -- required a star-studded squad. They've never progressed past the round of 16, and it's a part of the tournament they've seen just three times. Instead, Napoli fans watched in dismay as Insigne packed his things, Fabian Ruiz clamored for a move (and eventually landed at Paris Saint-Germain), Chelsea finally wooed away Kalidou Koulibaly, and Dries Mertens couldn't convince his beloved club to let him stay.

One by one, the bright lights of the Maurizio Sarri-era, that time of frenetic fun and hope, flickered out. In their place came names that we'd barely heard: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Kim Min-Jae, Tanguy Ndombele. Alongside them were players who'd made an impression at lower-level Italian sides: Leo Skiri Ostigard, Giovanni Simeone, Giacomo Raspadori. Solid and dependable players, yes; carrying the potential to be great, absolutely -- but not ones who set the pulse racing. Yet what previously looked like a summer of disaster upon disaster has been revised to appear as a triumph of Napoli's approach to the business of sport.

Red hot in Serie A and leading the table ahead of a visit to defending champions Milan, and 4-1 winners over mighty Liverpool in the Champions League, this new generation of Napoli stars could be the one to lead them to glory.

"Abra Kvdavara"

By the time rumors swirled about Cristiano Ronaldo joining Napoli, most supporters were against the idea and not just due to the baggage the superstar carried with him. In their first two games, the Partenopei scored nine goals and conceded twice -- faring far better than Inter, who were tipped for the title, Milan, who were defending it, and Juventus, who were just ... there. More than that, they were playing a fast, direct game that thrilled those watching. The side was, as coach Luciano Spalletti had promised before the season began, young and fun.

Much of that fun can be attributed to Kvaratskhelia -- also known as "Kvara" or "Kvaradona" -- an attacker so magical that he's already been hailed as the answer to Napoli's 30+ year title drought and labeled with a nickname reminiscent of Diego Maradona, the man who brought the club their only two scudetti. His first Napoli goal came just 37 minutes into the season against Hellas Verona, a header he drove into the ground and bounced beyond Lorenzo Montipo's outstretched arm. He immediately endeared himself to the traveling Napoli fans with his goal celebration in which he rested his cheek on his hands, mocking the sleeping Verona defense. Then, in the 55th minute, his diagonal ball cut through the midfield and sat up perfectly for Piotr Zielinski, who put the Azzurri ahead. Kvara came off 13 minutes later, already a hero.

It's worth noting that both Kvara and Diego began their careers at the Bentagodi, but the latter came off looking much worse for it. Maradona struggled to do much of anything in his first game in Serie A, a 3-1 loss to the eventual Serie A 1984-85 champions. Kvaratskhelia lit it up against Verona that day and has kept that fire burning across seven matches, scoring four goals and providing two assists -- all in just 425 minutes. And in a city known for its dark humor and irreverent approach to life, his celebrations (which also include a sassy "I can't hear you" ear-cupping directed to Liverpool fans) have charmed supporters.

Naples is a place that demands unquestionable loyalty to its club, his kissing the Napoli badge after scoring a brace in a 4-0 win over Monza has placed him among the few who occupy a demi-god tier just below Maradona's throne.

The business of nostalgia

To the casual observer, Napoli might seem held in place by a web of nostalgia, devoted to the man who brought them their only two titles. They've put Maradona's face on their kits and named their stadium after him, even comparing every player who shows a modicum of promise in their first outing to him. They make money from his memory and attempt to squeeze out more through the misty marketing of players with potential. But in the summer of 2022, the club's management ruthlessly cast aside the last of those who had played under Sarri, a squad adored for its thrilling football and near-relentless (though typically unsuccessful) pursuit of trophies.

The four seasons since Sarri's departure were nothing special, and so cutting all ties to those halcyon days felt akin to severing a still-working limb.

This ruthless rejection of nostalgia is best encapsulated by De Laurentiis' refusal to allow Mertens to play out one final year in Naples. The Belgian spent nine seasons in the Azzurri shirt and is the club's top goal scorer, with 148 across all competitions. Mertens loves Naples so much that he speaks Neapolitan, fosters dogs and even christened his son with the nickname given to him by fans, "Ciro." He wanted to see out his professional career with Napoli, but De Laurentiis held fast, insisting he was asking for too much money for too many years, given he's now 35.

Perhaps surprisingly, setting aside sentimentality is nothing new. Napoli reconstructed their side over a year in 2009-2010, beginning with the mutual departure of sporting director Pierpaolo Marino, who had overseen the club's rise from Serie C1 back to Serie A over just three years. Manager Roberto Donadoni, who'd taken the side into Europe, soon followed. With Riccardo Bigon now overseeing transfers, out went the likes of Fabio Quagliarella, despite 11 goals in 34 Serie A matches. In came Edinson Cavani, joining Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik up top, marking the start of the Walter Mazzarri-era, a time looked upon with even more fondness than the Sarri years.

Under Mazzarri, Napoli clinched a Champions League place for the first time, in 2011-2012. They won the Coppa Italia that same year. Cavani became the league's Capocannoniere (top scorer) in 2013, with 29 goals, but as incredible as the Uruguayan was, nearly every player during that time brought something unique or distinct or just plain different to the side. Lavezzi and Hamsik's overlapping, trouble-making runs up the sides are easy to remember, but there was also Hugo Campagnaro, an Argentine center-back who had no trouble venturing forward, his blue mouthguard shining.

Gokhan Inler, infamously unveiled to the press wearing a lion mask and (along with his midfield compatriot Blerim Dzemaili) had no compunction about shooting from distance, sometimes even hitting the back of the net. There was Christian Maggio, a brilliant hard worker who utterly dazzled during that first Champions League season, and who stayed with the club for 10 years.

Even the confused "defending" of Salvatore Aronica, who almost no one can remember contributing something beneficial to a match despite appearing over 100 times for Napoli, is now considered a positive quirk that added to the squad's collective personality.

The combination of that personality, playing style and the success of the side, just off the heels of Serie C1, is what will keep them forever in the hearts of Napoli fans. Sarri's years offered much of the same; but it was no longer enough to simply qualify for Champions League. And so, in this business of football, the last of them had to be let go in order to make room for the success they're chasing this season.

Unafraid to be direct

Some will say that while it's alright to be excited about this side, they've not been truly tested yet. In fact, while they currently lead the league, they could barely manage draws against Fiorentina and freshly promoted Lecce, ended up grinding out a win against perpetual strugglers Spezia, and had to come from behind to beat Lazio, their toughest opponents yet. (It could be argued that Napoli ran circles around the Biancocelesti in Rome; their 2-1 win could well have ended 4-1 or 5-1 if not for Ivan Provedel's impressive saves.)

Even the 4-1 drubbing of Liverpool in the Champions League has been diminished by many, with detractors noting that the Reds are not at their best. But put that match in context: Napoli had a bunch of youngsters lining up alongside last year's runners-up, many hearing the Champions League anthem for the first time. Liverpool had Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Roberto Firmino. None of Napoli's players started in their 1-0 Champions League win against Jurgen Klopp & Co. in 2018; only Zielinski made it onto the pitch, while seven Liverpool starters began that match. Yet it was the Partenopei who dominated, surging forward again and again, forcing Liverpool into mistakes with their direct approach and unleashing wave upon wave of attacks during the first hour, easing off once the visitors' humiliation was complete.

What may make this squad so dangerous is their mix of experience and youthful swagger. Although it's Kvara who everyone has rightfully been raving about, against Liverpool the players that have been in the Azzurri shirt for a couple years stepped up. Zielinski endured a tough time last year, but he was an absolute menace, scoring twice, providing an assist and leading the attack.

Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa arguably enjoyed his best game for Napoli, yet his ability to get under Liverpool's skin again and again indicates that even better things are coming. Then there are the quieter players in the squad, like Stanislav Lobotka, the midfielder whose solid vision and technique have improved dramatically over the past year; Amir Rrahmani, the center-back who helped absorb some of the pressure on Kim by being quietly excellent; and the young Eljif Elmas, the agile and flexible attacker who ensured Napoli got a point against Lecce. Finally, Giovanni Di Lorenzo had to step into the role of captain after his side lost three in quick succession over the summer, and he's held the ship steady in what could have been a time of total turmoil.

This new Napoli squad much resembles the Mazzarri days, with talent to spare and charisma aplenty. Kvara has already outpaced Cavani; his involvement in five goals in the first four league games marks the best output of any Napoli player since their return to Serie A in 2007. They also appear to be just as strong as the Sarri squad, too. Kim looks to be a more than adequate replacement for Koulibaly at the back, an incredible feat for a 25-year-old given that his predecessor is undeniably world class.

Just as importantly, particularly when considering that Sarri ran his starting XI into the ground, Raspadori and Simeone already look set to step into the forward slots when needed. Simeone, tears pouring down his cheeks as he saw his childhood dream of scoring in the Champions League fulfilled, netted against Liverpool after coming on for Victor Osimhen. Raspadori, meanwhile, threw kisses to the fans after his 89th-minute match-winner against Spezia took Napoli to the top of the table.

In Italy, the cliche says you can't be taken seriously unless you go up against Milan, Inter and Juventus and come away with all three points. Never mind that Juve have mustered just two boring wins, or that Inter -- tipped for the title before the season started thanks to Romelu Lukaku's return -- have already lost twice. Napoli won't come up against those sides until after the World Cup, but with the depth they've built (and the fact that only a few players will be headed to Qatar), for once fatigue doesn't seem like it will be a significant factor. It's Milan, title holders and even on points with Napoli in the league, that will be that true test calcio watchers are waiting for.

The Rossoneri are up next, but for once it doesn't feel as though it would be the end of the world if Napoli don't come away from Milan with a win. For supporters who were afraid to even hope for a Champions League spot next season, the current one has already exceeded expectations. And these seven matches have, if nothing else, shown that Napoli are building something special for the future.

Spalletti, sacked by Inter after two seasons in which he barely managed to squeak the team into fourth and out of coaching for two years, wasn't exactly a thrilling appointment. But it takes a boatload of confidence for a manager of a Champions League team expected to compete for the title to step up and say that he wants a youthful side. Thus far, he's been proved right. He's been able to meld together those who played under him last season and the newcomers in the squad in a way that allows his "young and fun" philosophy to shine.

In 2022, Napoli are a team that, while excellent on the ball and terrific at placing a pass, are not afraid to be direct. They move with purpose and they move fast, disarming defenses and striking again before they've even had a chance to reset. This season, Napoli are going for it, and it's an utter joy to watch ... unless you're a fan of the opposing side.