With New Options, Napoli Prepared to Shed Runner-Up Status

Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly, left, heads the ball as Liverpool's Roberto Firmino tries to stop him during the Champions League Group E soccer match between Napoli and Liverpool, at the San Paolo stadium in Naples, Italy, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

NAPLES, Italy — Tired of its perennial runner-up status in Serie A and shortcomings in Europe, Napoli may have finally overcome a major hurdle toward becoming a genuine threat in all competitions.

A depleted bench penalized the southern club under former coaches Walter Mazzarri, Maurizio Sarri and Rafa Benitez but Carlo Ancelotti finally has a wealth of options to choose from in his second season as coach of the Partenopei.

“Our goals have been achieved and we now have the quality to fight with the objective of winning the Scudetto (Serie A title),” Ancelotti tweeted on Aug. 24 — a day after Hirving Lozano was signed from PSV Eindhoven for a fee of 46 million euros ($51 million) that made the Mexico winger the most expensive player in Napoli history.

While Ancelotti’s prophecy was tested in an up-and-down opening two matches of Serie A, Napoli has come into its own over the last week with 2-0 wins over Sampdoria and then a much more impressive victory by the same score over Liverpool — last season’s winner — to open the Champions League.

“(Napoli) can win the competition. If you have a good plan. If you have good players — which they obviously have — then you can win the competition. We experienced that,” Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp said after the match at the Stadio San Paolo on Tuesday. “You don’t have to be the best team in the world to win the Champions League. You have to be in the right moment, you have to be lucky in some situations.”

Napoli has been runner-up in Serie A three of the last four years and four in the last seven, having also achieved two third-place finishes in that span, and while the squad is considered a threat to eight-time defending champion Juventus this season, few expect it to win the Champions League.

“If he (Klopp) says we can win the competition, I thank him a lot because it’s a coach who really knows football who’s saying that,” said Ancelotti, who won two European Cups as a player and three Champions League titles as a coach (two with AC Milan and one with Real Madrid). “But it’s a very long road. We need to focus on advancing now; that’s our first objective and we’re already in a good position.”

Still, Lozano and other new Napoli players like center back Kostas Manolas (who transferred from Roma), striker Fernando Llorente (Tottenham), midfielder Elif Elmas (Fenerbahçe) and fullback Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Empoli) have raised Napoli’s profile.

With the exception of Elmas, who was rated one of the top performers against Sampdoria, all of the new players have already scored this season and Llorente was decisive against Liverpool.

Coming on as a late substitute, Llorente won the header that led to a disputed penalty converted by Dries Mertens for Napoli’s opener and then sealed it by scoring the second.

“Everyone thinks that Llorente is an old-school center forward because he’s so tall, but he’s a complete player,” Ancelotti said of the 1.93-meter (6-foot-3) Spaniard.

Kalidou Koulibaly was widely considered the best defender in Serie A last season but he struggled with his condition at the start of the season and scored a devastating own-goal to hand Juventus a 4-3 victory last month.

Against Liverpool, however, Koulibaly showed why Napoli received highly lucrative offers for his services in the offseason, shutting down Liverpool’s feared strikers Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané with a series of perfectly timed tackles.

“I arrived late to preseason training as I was at the African Cup of Nations and with Manolas joining it took us a while to learn how to play together and we conceded a lot of goals, but we’re improving,” Koulibaly said of the seven goals conceded in the opening two Serie A games. “I want to take the Napoli colors to the top.”

By: Andrew Dampf, AP Sports Writer

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