Since the end of Juventus’s reign of dominance, Serie A has become the most fun top league in Europe to follow. The lack of a monopoly (Bundesliga, Ligue 1) or duopoly (La Liga, Premier League) at the top means Italy’s top league has seen more parity over the last couple of seasons than any other. In 2020, Inter officially broke Juve’s nine-year hold on the scudetto, and cross-city rivals AC Milan won a title of its own last season. This season looks like it could be The Year for another of Serie A’s elite also-rans, as Napoli has come out blasting as the boot-shaped country’s best and most entertaining side, something that it has carried over with aplomb into the Champions League.
In Wednesday’s early game, the current Serie A leaders hosted Ajax for a Champions League group match that offered Napoli the chance to clinch a spot in the knockout rounds should the Italians come away with at least a point. But rather than settle for a dull draw, the Azzurri blitzed the Dutch side from the word go, scoring in the first four minutes of the game via Mexican sprinter Hirving Lozano’s wonderful give-and-go with Piotr Zielinski:
Immediately, Wednesday’s game felt like a repeat of last week’s reverse fixture against Ajax in Amsterdam. Although Ajax scored first in the ninth minute of that game, Napoli buckled down after and scored three goals before halftime and eventually won, 6-1. That scoreline made Napoli the first ever team to score 10 goals in the first three games of a Champions League group stage, and Wednesday’s game only added to its preposterous tally. Twelve minutes after Lozano’s beauty, and after a handful of Ajax chances from its talented front three threatened to make this a more even contest, new signing Giacomo Raspadori found the ball at his feet inside the box and absolutely cannoned the ball into the top netting of Ajax’s goal, giving him his fourth goal in three Champions League matches, Napoli a 2–0 lead, and the Dutch side some painful flashbacks of the week prior:
The rest of the first half passed without much incident. Ajax was actually the next team to score, when Davy Klaassen rocketed a header into and past Alex Meret’s hands just four minutes after halftime. It appeared, for an extended moment, like this was game on. Napoli, though, got a surge of energy with the introductions of Tanguy Ndombele and Victor Osimhen, and in the 59th minute, Ndombele hit a volley clean at the top of the box, directly into Jurrien Timber’s outstretched arm. After a lengthy VAR check, the referee gave Napoli a penalty, which Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia coolly smashed away:
The penalty call would go back in Ajax’s favor in the 81st minute, as Napoli center back Juan Jesus, so often the team’s best player this season, dragged down Brian Brobbey just inside the box. It was arguably a soft penalty, but a penalty nonetheless, and former Tottenham winger Steven Bergwijn matched his Napoli counterpart with a rocket of a penalty to make it 3–2 with around 10 minutes to go.
This wasn’t nearly as one-sided as the previous meeting between these two clubs—the Dutch side won the possession battle 55–45, and both sides had the same amount of shots, with 13—but that speaks to Napoli’s form and nerve more than anything. Despite facing a tough team who would not give up, the Italians just kept bombing forward and hitting Ajax on the counter. The introduction of Osimhen was the key point here, as the Nigerian striker had chance after chance to seal the game away for his side, including a point-blank mishit in the 84th minute that should have made it 4–2.
No matter, though, as his tireless work-rate in pressing paid off in the 89th minute, when he sprinted to cut off a lazy pass from Youri Baas towards Davey Blind. After a perfectly timed steal of the ball, Osimhen was able to simply slide the ball into an open goal, restoring his side’s two-goal lead and giving Napoli a perfect start: four games in the group, four wins, and a 17–4 goal difference:
This is what Napoli has done for most of the season so far. In 13 games played across Serie A and the Champions League, the side has only dropped four total points, courtesy of a 1–1 draw against Lecce and a 0–0 against Fiorentina. Otherwise, Napoli has beaten everyone in front of them, with marquee victories over Liverpool (4–1, and it should have been more) and defending champion AC Milan (2–1 away from home). The team isn’t perfect; its defending has been shaky at times, understandably after the sale of world-beating center back Kalidou Koulibaly to Chelsea in the summer. Still, as it showed against Ajax, Napoli has enough tools going the other way to not just beat opponents, but thrash them on the scoreline. Napoli’s dominance has made it one of the few teams assured of a place in the Champions League knockouts already—so far, only Napoli, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City and, surprisingly, Club Brugge have secured advancement out of the group stage— and the top spot in Serie A with a two-point lead over Atalanta.
Every year, a team outside of the usual suspects emerges as a potential contender in the Champions League group stage, and it’s always a question of how real the team actually is. Napoli appears to be very real. The team has already beaten one of those usual suspects in Liverpool, and Ajax is no slouch either. With its place in the knockouts in hand, the team can now move its focus to what it can do from here. If Napoli plays like it has, the answer to that can be as stellar as a shiny double of domestic and continental glory, and no one will be able to say that it doesn’t deserve to do just that.