Situated on a beautiful patch of earth flanked by the menace of Vesuvius and a bay that gives way to the glimmering Tyrrhenian Sea is Naples – a city like no other.
It is a unique metropolis of particularities, defined by pride and marked by a turbulent history. And in that very place there is but one football club to be adored.
This is what Rafael Benitez found when he touched down at Napoli some two years ago. The rhythms of Naples and its beloved exponent of calcio were there to be absorbed with his own eyes, learned and treated with special regard.
The mission set for the Spaniard by Napoli supremo Aurelio De Laurentiis was simple in name – complete the project he had begun by making the Partenopei genuine contenders.
It would be a job easier said than done, as Benitez likely knew all along. As the current season enters its twilight stage, ‘Rafalution’ – as his arrival in Naples was hailed – may soon come to an end.
There was a reason Benitez accepted De Laurentiis’ offer to begin with. The 55-year-old is one to relish challenges, to get behind a cause with pragmatism in hand.
De Laurentiis has spent heavily reviving Napoli, ushering in a new era after bankruptcy. When Walter Mazzarri stepped aside and the film magnate needed a new man at the helm, he turned to Benitez to take the side to the next level.
Two more trophies sit in Napoli’s cabinet than when Benitez arrived. The Scudetto, however, has decisively eluded him. Last term the Partenopei finished 24 points off the pace. This time around, Benitez’s men are 20 points back with seven games to go.
And in part, it is why Benitez could be available this summer. With an expiring contract, he has expressed doubt that he’ll remain in Campania.
Benitez has his own questions surrounding De Laurentiis’ project going forward – namely, whether he’ll be provided the necessary support in a forward-thinking manner.
Thoughts of a Premier League return have long been something of an eventuality. The Telegraph has named Benitez as a ‘serious contender’ for the West Ham job as Sam Allardyce’s terms run out at the end of the season – and no new deal is in place.
Benitez knows the lay of the land in England better than most. He guided Liverpool and Chelsea to unlikely triumphs – a proven background in English football.
West Ham fans have spoken on the Spaniard. In a poll conducted by HITC this week, readers voted Benitez as their top choice to succeed Allardyce, should he depart.
The focus thus returns to Benitez. Would he put Napoli in the rearview mirror for West Ham? Do the Hammers have the proper foundation to lure the ex-Liverpool boss?
In short, yes. West Ham have a pedigree, even if trophies haven’t been flowing. The Olympic Stadium move is on the horizon. David Gold and David Sullivan appear to have a vision.
Improving infrastructure and club underpinnings is something Benitez has alluded to as a need to be convinced to stay at Napoli. But while De Laurentiis can offer the prospect of significant investment via transfer fees, there isn’t much movement on other fronts.
At West Ham, Benitez wouldn’t find the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Marek Hamsik. Yet a loyal fan base, progressive thought from ownership and great potential are all in place.
He is not a manager who has become accustomed to operating in opulent environments such as Real Madrid and Manchester City, more a man who enjoys constructing success.
Ever the cup specialist, bringing a trophy such as a FA Cup or Capital One Cup could do West Ham a world of good. From there, with a new stadium and concrete structure behind him, Benitez could continue building for the future and set further targets.
There is some sense that Benitez has taken Napoli as far as he can, winning a Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana, leaving a legacy even if the Serie A title wasn’t on the cards.
A 4-1 hammering of Wolfsburg last week also means that Napoli are a fair bet to take the Europa League crown.
Delivering that would be an honourable final act for Benitez in Naples, passing down Champions League football and another trophy while highlighting his specialty in knockout football once more.
With that behind him, why not take up the reigns at West Ham? As a particularly applicable Neapolitan proverb says: “the good bell is heard in the distance.” In short, quality opportunities reveal themselves when the time is right.
Perhaps, that bell rings in east London, calling Benitez. Only time will tell, but it would be wholly unwise to rule out the Hammers as an intriguing option for the traveled tactician.
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