Bizarrely, for a man who’s managed one of Arsenal’s arch-enemies in London, Rafael Benitez is likely to receive a better atmosphere at the Emirates tonight, than he did at Stamford Bridge for most of his spell in charge last season.
The former Liverpool manager, however, will soon become an enemy should his Napoli side manage to become only the third non-English team to win on Arsenal’s home turf in the Champions League since the 2003-04 season.
Although the two sides are meeting for the first time, the novelty factor on tonight’s clash is thinner than expected, for both sides went to head-to-head in the summer, on and off the pitch.
On the pitch, both sides – alongside Porto and Galatasaray – contested the Emirates Cup while, much more importantly, off it they faced each other in the race to sign Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain.
The Argentine looked on the verge of becoming Arsene Wenger’s big summer signing, only to join Rafa Benitez’s revolution at Napoli, while a former team-mate of his, Mesut Ozil, became Arsenal’s most expensive player ever only a couple of weeks later.
Higuain, who might start from the bench tonight due to a thigh injury, has wasted no time in settling at the San Paolo Stadium, netting three times in his first six league games as well as finding the net against Dortmund, justifying Rafa’s decision to break the bank for the Argentine.
Benitez’s career at Napoli has got off to a flying start, with the Partenopei winning five of their first six Serie A games and beating last season’s Champions League runners-up Borussia Dortmund in the opening game of Group F.
If those early numbers are anything to go by, the former Liverpool manager’s second coming in Italy promises to be altogether more successful than his first adventure in charge of Inter Milan, when Benitez replaced Jose Mourinho before being unceremoniously sacked.
Benitez’s strategy and experience could prove crucial for Napoli, particularly in Europe, while his and Higuain’s arrivals in the summer have further galvanised an environment coming to terms with the departure of talismanic striker Edinson Cavani.
The Uruguayan, a lethal finisher and a superb all-round player who scored 104 goals in just 138 appearances for Napoli in all competitions, including 29 in 34 Serie A games last season joined his former teammate Ezequiel Lavezzi at PSG but, just like last season, Napoli have looked ahead rather behind, exploring new avenues to fill the void left in their team, rather than ruing Lavezzi or Cavani’s departures.
Benitez’s arrival has been pivotal in this sense, for many felt Napoli had achieved all they could under Walter Mazzarri, the man who took the Partenopei back into Europe’s elite competition two years ago and who had also made team competitive again in Serie A.
For all his qualities, however, Mazzarri’s only trophy at Napoli was the Coppa Italia he won in the 2011-12, the club’s first piece of silverware in 25 years, not enough to satisfy the ever-growing ambitions of maverick president Aurelio De Laurentiis.
The Napoli president, a successful movie producer, has an eye for the dramatic even in football – two seasons ago, new signing Gokhan Inler arrived at his first press conference with his face covered by a masque resembling a tiger – and this summer forked out £76.5m on players.
While Higuain, who costed £32.5m, is Napoli’s latest jewel, the San Paolo’s long standing hero, Marek Hamsik is just as pivotal to Benitez’s team. The Slovakian playmaker has scored four in four appearances in Serie A this season and is rightly considered among the continent’s finest in his role.
New signings Dries Mertens – arrived from PSV for £8.5m – Jose Maria Callejon and Raul Albiol – both purchased from Real Madrid for £8.3m and £10.5m respectively – have bolstered a squad that had always struggled to cope on more than one front under Mazzarri.
The former Napoli manager’s legacy, however, is very tangible on the pitch as Benitez has refused to steer away from the high-tempo, quick passing game Napoli employed under his predecessor, albeit he’s trying to instil his defensive mentality in his players.
Having beaten Dortmund in their opening game, Napoli travel to the Emirates full of confidence tonight, aiming to emulate what Jurgen Klopp’s team did 12 months ago – emerging from an extremely tough group to shock Europe’s elite – while Arsenal look to continue their excellent start to the season.
One way or the other, tonight will say a lot about both clubs’ credentials.