This season has undoubtedly been a tumultuous one for Napoli, the form of Rafael Benitez’s side fluctuating wildly throughout the campaign.
It began with the Champions League Playoff round back in August, the Partenopei were simply unable to cope with the up-tempo style of Athletic Club, with the Basque side eliminating them by a 4-2 aggregate scoreline which perhaps failed to represent the gulf between them at that time.
That loss would affect Napoli’s domestic form, as they won just one of their opening four league games and losing to both Chievo and Udinese as a string of disjointed performances seemed set to derail their campaign before it had truly even begun. It appeared that a number of players – with perhaps Gonzalo Higuain chief among them – had regretted their decision to remain at the Stadio San Paolo, and the club slumped as low as fifteenth place in the standings as a result.
Then, just as quickly as they had come unravelled, things clicked into place, with former Real Madrid misfit José Callejón at the heart of it. Netting the only goal of the game against Sassuolo in late September, the Spanish star followed that up by scoring once and creating another against Palermo, then adding a match-winning strike against Torino. Two more goals would follow against Inter before a virtuoso performance in a thrilling 6-2 demolition of Hellas Verona and there was still more to come from the 28-year-old.
In early November AS Roma travelled south to Naples. Battles between the two are always notoriously tempestuous and their status as the most likely challengers to the dominance of Juventus only serves to magnify that.
The game saw challenges flying in as each sought to establish their authority, with the tie delicately balanced despite Higuain’s early goal, and there was no escaping the feeling that this was a game that both sides desperately wanted to win.
Again Callejón would lead the way, tormenting the Giallorossi from his nominal role on the right flank, drifting in-field to seek out the ball and driving at the heart of the visitors’ defence constantly. Rudi Garcia’s men had little answer to his probing runs, and looked on as a shot from the former Espanyol man struck the woodwork. He would have another effort cleared off the line by Radja Nainggolan before delivering the final blow, his perfectly timed run allowing him to meet a cross from Higuain and steer it past goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis with his first touch.
Those three points lifted Napoli into third place in the league and saw him take his tally to eight goals in the first ten league games of the season, his devastating form finally catching the eye of Vincente Del Bosque. No longer able to overlook the uncapped attacking star, the national team coach would bring him into the Spain squad for their meetings with Belarus and Germany later that month. Callejón would finally make his debut for La Furia Roja and knew the reasons behind his long-overdue inclusion.
Don't forget to check out Paolo Bandini's Serie A betting tips every Friday!
“Since I've been at Napoli, I've had the chance to play consistently,” he told reporters shortly afterwards. “I wanted that, have gained experience and I've been able to mature. This call-up is thanks to Rafa Benitez and Napoli. I must thank them for this honour of being able to represent my country.” The celebrations would continue as he returned to action for the Partenopei, helping them defeat league winners Juventus in Doha to win the Italian Super Cup for the first time since 1990, when Diego Maradona lifted them to unprecedented heights.
Yet the next low point for player and club was not too far away as Napoli hit another slump, failing to win any of their last six domestic fixtures but progressing to the Quarter Final of the Europa League, thanks to victory over Dinamo Moscow last month. Wolfsburg await in that competition, but first they face a similarly out-of-sorts AS Roma this weekend, desperate to win as they have fallen down to fifth place and some six points away from an automatic Champions League berth.
For his part, Callejón has failed to register a goal or an assist since scoring against Cesena on January 6, an alarming run of eighteen games in all competitions.
Failure to qualify for Europe’s elite competition for a second successive season could have huge implications on not just his future, but also that of Benitez and Higuain, both linked with summer departures.
Having carried the side for so long, his poor form has once again coincided with Napoli’s own struggles, and his siden will once again be looking to Callejón to deliver when it matters most.
Read more from Serie A expert Adam Digby