Forget Recreativo de Huelva and OGC Nice; FC Barcelona’s preseason really starts tonight when they take on UEFA Champions League qualifiers SSC Napoli at the Stade de Geneve in Switzerland. After another strong campaign saw the Partenopei easily claim the final qualifying berth ahead of Fiorentina, expectations are high in Naples, with many fans confident that Napoli can push on and either emulate their second-place finish of 2012/13, or even go one better and lift the Scudetto for the first time in 25 years.
And somewhat unlike their opposition for tonight’s match, Napoli have demonstrated that promise in their opening preseason fixtures and will be looking to build upon their impressive form with a landmark victory against Luis Enrique’s FC Barcelona.
Usually, our focus on every game starts and ends with the Blaugrana, but prior to tonight’s kick-off, we caught up with Conor Dowley, Manager of SB Nation’s SSC Napoli blog, The Siren’s Song who provided us with some insight into Napoli’s preseason, his hopes for the upcoming campaign and his thoughts about tonight’s clash.
For more 'Napoli' info, head over to the The Siren's Song
We’d like to thank Conor for taking the time out to answer our questions and for providing his expertise; for more Napoli-centric coverage of tonight’s match, including Part Two of this Q&A featuring yours truly, and indeed their upcoming push for the Scudetto, be sure to check out The Siren’s Song.
BB: While he may be one of the more successful managers of the current generation, Rafa Benitez often polarizes opinion amongst fans. How would you rate his debut season as coach, and do you believe that he is the right man for the immediate future at Napoli?
TSS: Rafa bettered expectations early on in the season, though some too-well-known issues of his crept in to the second half in a painful way. Napoli actually beat club records for points and goals scored, but concentration issues against clubs low in the table cost Napoli the chance at a truly spectacular season. Still, the club adjusted to his tactics and style a lot faster than I had expected them to, and are bringing in even more players that fit with how he operates. Things are looking bright for the next few years, and Rafa's already been making noises about a ten-year plan, something we haven't heard from him since his early days at Liverpool.
Who were the stand-out players from your opening preseason win against PAOK? Do you expect their good form will continue against a somewhat disjointed Barcelona outfit?
Jose Callejon scored a wonderful early goal against the Greek side and looked to be in excellent form, continuing his strong play from a previous friendly against Kalloni the weekend before. New signing Kalidou Koulibaly has also been a pleasant surprise; he was considered more of a buy for the future, but he's shown more skill in the present than expected. Especially against what looks like will be a weakened Barca front line, he could easily continue to play very well.
With Pepe Reina gone, do you think that one of Neymar's former teammates, Rafael, is ready to step up as Napoli's number one?
Absolutely, and in fact I think he was comfortably outplaying Reina before falling victim to a knee injury that wiped out the rest of his season. He's an excellent and instinctual shot-stopper who showed surprising development in other aspects of his play like distribution and command of his box, and looks more than ready to take the next step and become a full-time starting 'keeper for a higher-level club like Napoli.
Following Antonio Conte's somewhat expected departure from Juventus, it's safe to say that the race for the Serie A title seems more open than ever this season. Do you think that Napoli have made the right moves in this transfer window, and are therefore well-placed to challenge for the title this season?
There's still more work to be done, more pieces to be added, but Napoli seem to be working towards patching their holes. They have a strong squad now and seem well-positioned to making a good run to knock Juventus off their perch. Especially if you expect a rebound from Marek Hamsik, things are looking rather nicely "up" for the upcoming campaign.
So, what are your expectations for the upcoming season?
I expect nothing less than a strong push for the Scudetto, and advancement in to the Champions League knockout rounds, preferably winning at least one knockout matchup. Napoli were only prevented the latter thanks to coming up a hair short in tiebreakers, so it's not an unreasonable hope.
Finally, any prediction for tonight's match?
I think these two sides are much better matched than they were a few years ago when Barcelona whomped on Napoli to the tune of 5-0. Given Napoli's strong performances and focus so far compared to Barca's shakier form, a hard-fought win seems very possible. I don't do scorelines, but a one-goal win with the difference-maker coming late on in the match is what I'm feeling.
- Preseason Friendly: FC Barcelona vs SSC Napoli: Full Match Coverage
- Report: Besiktas JK to Make Move for Ibrahim Afellay
- Doctor: Neymar 'Likely' to Play in FC Barcelona La Liga Debut
- Preseason Friendly: FC Barcelona vs SSC Napoli: Match Preview
- Report: Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets Named FC Barcelona Co-Captains