It is undoubtedly the case that Napoli will be Serie A champions this season. It is no longer a case of if; it’s when. And the “when” could come as soon as April if results go the way of Luciano Spalletti’s men in the next few weeks. Being crowned champions as early as possible will allow Spalletti to pour all his focus into other areas, namely the UEFA Champions League.
We know, of course, that the draw has meant that three Italian teams will be in the quarter-finals for the first time since 2006. And, as serendipity put the two Milan clubs and Napoli in the same side of the draw, we know we will have at least one Italian club in the semi-finals. Of course, that’s not guaranteed to be Napoli, and there’s every chance we will be looking at a Milan Derby in the semis, or even an AC Milan vs. Benfica (Inter’s opponents) clash.
Napoli among the favourites for a reason
However, Napoli are now considered second favourites for the Champions League outright. And while football betting odds aren’t always the indicators punters think that they are, Napoli are given that accolade for a reason. Few teams across Europe are playing as well. Moreover, they have the luxury of avoiding Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Man City (the favourites) on their side of the draw.
But let’s say hypothetically that Napoli do come through their side of the draw. It is possible that the team that emerges in the final will be a lot fresher than those on the other side. Man City and Bayern – the two clubs on either side of Napoli in the betting markets – are both locked in fairly brutal title races that will likely go to the wire. As mentioned, there is every chance that Spalletti will be able to take his foot off the gas in May, resting key players and focusing on the Champions League Final.
Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that an early title victory could also help Napoli through the quarter-finals and semis. Both Milan clubs are fighting for the Champions League spots for next season, and while Benfica have a commanding lead at the top of the Portuguese Primeira Liga, it’s not just as secure as Napoli’s. These factors – slightly fresher legs, the ability to focus on specific games – could play a role in the coming weeks.
A winter World Cup will take its toll on players
And here’s the rub. Every year we talk about teams being fresh in the latter stages of the Champions League, and some might take it with a pinch of salt. However, in this unprecedented season that was interrupted by a World Cup, it takes on a new meaning. Scheduling of club football has been relentless since the World Cup ended, with national organisations trying to squeeze in everything so that the season can end as normal in May. It’s been tough, with most clubs seeming almost relieved when the international break came at the end of March.
Of course, Italy did not qualify for the World Cup, and that lightened the burden on some Serie A clubs. But Napoli having only sent five players to Qatar puts them in a strong position in terms of player fatigue. Manchester City and Bayern Munich had 16 players each in Qatar. Those extra games will take a toll on the English and German champions. Of all team in the last eight of the Champions League, Napoli sent the fewest players to Qatar. Might that, coupled with an almost-guaranteed league title, make the difference in their Champions League ambitions? We will soon find out.