Life after Maurizio Sarri was supposed to be harder than this for Napoli, but Carlo Ancelotti has succeeded in taking the reins from the now-Chelsea boss and early signs suggest he is going to silence many of his critics at the Stadio San Paolo this season.
Question marks hung over the Partenopei all summer after Pepe Reina and, in particular, Jorginho’s exits. The midfielder was the player who made them tick more than any other, he was the one individual who best epitomised what their style was and now, without him and without a leader in Reina, Ancelotti had to pick up the reins.
It has been somewhat surprising then that things have run so smoothly for Napoli this term. Losses to Juventus and Sampdoria aside, things have been going well in the shadows of Mount Vesuvius and, as things stand, they sit level with Inter on 22 points in second place after ten rounds of fixtures.
Sunday’s draw at home to Roma is the only other time Ancelotti’s side have dropped points this season and one of the reasons for that is their strength at the back that, this year, goes deeper than just Kalidou Koulibaly.
Nikola Maksimovic has been trusted in the first team again and while he hasn’t featured in every game, he has been given time on the pitch that seemed an impossibility under Sarri.
Ancelotti hasn’t chosen the Serbian in any of his last four Serie A starting XIs, but his last two appearances came against Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain in what were two of the Partenopei’s biggest games, and best performances, of the season.
It looked as though it was going to be another year on the sidelines for Maksimovic, who spent the second half of last term on loan at Spartak Moscow, as he sat on the bench in each of Napoli’s first three matches – in which they leaked six goals (one v Lazio, two v AC Milan and three v Sampdoria).
Then, with the defender playing against Fiorentina, Torino and Parma, Ancelotti’s side kept two clean sheets and picked up three wins, before he dropped out of the team for the defeat against Juventus only to return for the victory over Liverpool.
When selected, Maksimovic has proven his importance to the Partenopei’s defence system and, alongside Koulibaly, has formed an impressive and at times impermeable pair.
Although he has just four starts in his five appearances in 2018/19, Maksimovic has shown in those that he offers a versatility that Napoli’s defence lacks, playing in both central and right-sided positions.
More than his positional flexibility, he has looked comfortable on the ball and more than capable to slot into the eye-catching style of play used in Naples.
The 26-year-old has proven in only a handful of games this season that he still has a role to play at the San Paolo and Sarri shouldn’t have been as quick as he was to write him off.