On 14th May, one could almost hear the collective cheer among Napoli fans. The Partenopei may not have been able to end Juventus’s reign over the Scudetto title, but their star man, Gonzalo Higuain, had managed to match a record that had stood since the 1928/1929 season with a hat-trick against an already-relegated Frosinone.
87 years prior, Gino Rosetti scored 36 goals for Torino. Interestingly, that was not enough to help the Granata win the league title back then, either. That prize ended up going to Bologna, after the Rossoblu narrowly edged them out 1-0 during a tie-breaker following a two-legged playoff. Flash-forward nearly nine decades later, and Higuain, in a league well known as one of the toughest to score in, was now the first player to plunder 36 goals in a solitary season. So, whilst Maurizio Sarri’s men were unable to prevent a runaway Bianconeri from surging to their fifth straight Scudetto, the future nonetheless looked bright. With “El Pipita” within their ranks, Napoli were back in the Champions League. And more importantly, the Partenopei could again make another push to knock La Vecchia Signora off their perch.
How quickly those cheers of joy would turn to howls of anger and despair.
All is well…until Juve comes calling
On 26th July, Napoli and Higuain again became a part of Serie A history. This time, the stage was the transfer market, and the star was a mammoth €90 million transfer fee. It always hurts to lose a star player, no matter how big or small one’s favorite club is. But by far, it is always even more painful when that star player moves to a bitter rival. In the Argentinian’s case, it was a trip up north to none other than, yes, Juventus.
Bayern Munich have gotten quite a bit of flack for aggressively pursuing their top rivals’ players. And die Roten have made no bones about it. After all, what better way to consolidate one’s position than to pick off the prized talents from an opposing side? Over the past five seasons, the Bianconeri have established themselves as Italy’s no. 1 side, and although they did struggle initially last season, Juventus again showed why they are the side to beat as they blew away the competition en route to a fifth straight league title.
This year, they arguably are looking to make history with a sixth Scudetto on the trot, but naturally, their objectives are bigger. Having been 90 minutes away from what would have been an impressive Treble in Massimiliano Allegri’s debut season two years ago, La Vecchia Signora are determined to go one step further by ending their 21-year wait for European glory.
In order to do that, of course, one needs the personnel. And that does, yes, mean, buying out talent from rival sides. In addition to €90 million man Higuain, Juve also spent big to bring in Miralem Pjanic from Roma. It’s no coincidence that both the Giallorossi and the Partenopei have been their biggest rivals for the Scudetto in recent seasons. And it’s no surprise that Napoli fans were less than impressed. In just two months, Higuain had gone from hero to public enemy number one. The kits that Napoli fans had once celebrated were shoved into toilets, set on fire, and spat on; even club owner Aurelio Di Laurentiis could not help but vehemently denounce the player in public.
A time of unrest, upheaval, and uncertainty
With Higuain off to Turin, Napoli were a side in flummox. After all, there was less than a month to go until the new Serie A season started. They had no primary striker. Inter’s Mauro Icardi was touted repeatedly as a potential replacement, but nothing came to fruition. When the Partenopei finally announced they had acquired a new hit-man, the reaction among supporters was muted, to say the least. The new replacement, Arkadiusz Milik, did well in the Eredivisie, with 47 goals in 75 appearances. However, even the most devoted Ajax fan will have to admit that the Dutch league is not on par with Serie A.
Although he did not set the pitch alight at Euro 2016, neither did his more esteemed colleague, Robert Lewandowski. Furthermore, the Polish striker is only 22 and naturally has many more years – and tournaments – ahead of him. That being said, coming in and replacing a player who nearly beat a long-standing goal-scoring record is certainly no easy task. And Napoli fans, still smarting after the departure of Higuain, naturally expect to see the €35 million signing justify why he deserves to be the club’s new no. 1 man in front of goal.
Well, it has not taken him long to start to win over his new supporters.
Milik making his mark…and easing the pain of Higuain’s departure
Scoring two goals on one’s full debut is always a good thing. Scoring two goals, however, to help one’s team rebound after a surprise opening draw is even better. Although Milik was not able to net during Napoli’s shock 2-2 stalemate with lowly Pescara, the Polish attacker grabbed his first brace in a 4-2 win over AC Milan.
The new man has also proven his worth outside of Italy. On Tuesday, Napoli traveled to take on Dynamo Kiev for their first Champions League group stage match. And Milik was again the star of the evening. Two goals, three points, and Maurizio Sarri’s side headed back home on top of Group B.
Next up will be a clash against Bologna, and with Milik on fire, Napoli will be certainly fancying their chances this Saturday. Indeed, the Partenopei can be backed at 1/4 to see off the Rossoblu at the Stadio San Paolo as they look to keep up the pressure on Juventus.
So, will Milik be able to truly mitigate the pain of Higuain’s departure? It is still early in the season, but with four goals in four apps – including a game-winning brace in European action, he certainly has already started to lessen the sting quite a bit.