The joke going around southern Italy about Rafa Benitez, the soon-to-depart coach of Napoli, is that he has excelled lately at premature farewells. On Thursday, he announced what had been widely foreseen: that he is leaving Napoli at the end of the Serie A season. That is, immediately after tomorrow night’s charged meeting with Lazio.
For some, that counts as the third farewell he has made this season. The first came in the Coppa Italia campaign, where he bid adieu in the semi-final stage; then came the Europa League campaign, where Napoli again went out in the last four. Those hurt, as did Napoli’s elimination in the play-offs round of the Champions League last August.
But there is a chance Benitez can make significant amends and leave a positive legacy before he moves on, probably to Real Madrid.
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Game 38 of Napoli’s up-and-down league campaign carries a potentially huge prize. Beat Lazio and the club will squeeze into third place in the table, equalling their standing of 12 months ago, and taking them again into an August play-off for a slot in the lucrative Champions League group phase.
Napoli need a victory to jump over a Lazio side who have lately stumbled after what had been an impressive spring. Their lead over fourth-place Napoli stands at three points, but a Napoli win would assure the Neapolitans finish ahead of their direct rivals because of the head-to-head tie-breaker: Benitez’s team beat Stefano Pioli’s side 1-0 in Rome.
Napoli probably need to be aggressive and proactive, qualities not always associated with Benitez the tactician. In his time in Spain, where he won two Liga titles with Valencia; and England, where he led Liverpool to a Champions League victory and Chelsea to a Europa League success, he was sometimes caricatured as cagey and conservative.
He bristled at that suggestion as he gave the press conference to confirm he would not be staying in Italy. “I believe I adapt well to the qualities of the team I have in front of me,” he said. “If you have attacking strength you attack. Here, they would say I am an offensive coach.”
He has a point. Only Juventus, the runaway champions, have scored more Serie A goals than Napoli this season. Where Lazio have trumped Napoli is in picking up points against opponents lower down in the table.
Benitez’s explanation: “It is hard to maintain consistency when you are competing in three distinct competitions.” His legacy? “Napoli can go on stronger from here,” he said, “and I think I can say my final goodbye with a place in the Champions League achieved.”
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