When Carlo Ancelotti and his Napoli players boarded their plane out of Salzburg following a 3-2 win on matchday three of their latest Champions League campaign, they sat top of Group E.
They had beaten European champions Liverpool at Stadio San Paolo, played out a stalemate against Genk on the road before Lorenzo Insigne, club captain, stepped up when needed to edge out Salzburg at the Red Bull Arena.
At that point, the halfway stage of the campaign, the notion of a civil war, even with controversial owner Aurelio De Laurentiis in tow, seemed rather fanciful.
Napoli have not recovered since their last Champions League game ignited a club civil war
President Aurelio De Laurentiis is now said to be fining the squad to the tune of £2million
A Dries Mertens brace and the winner from Insigne cancelled out Erling Haaland’s double and provided the Neapolitan side with a much-needed win, but form in Serie A soon began to falter.
Having been unbeaten in three games either side of the Genk and Salzburg trips, Ancelotti’s players collapsed on and off the field. While Salzburg only took a point in the return at the Stadio San Paolo, that 90 minutes caused a civil war between De Laurentiis, Ancelotti, the players and supporters.
Things have yet to recover.
The club’s famous anthem, O surdato ’nnammurato (The Soldier in Love), has a telling line about how things are meant to be at the club. Unity. Togetherness. Solidarity.
Part of the opening verse reads: ‘I hope and want nothing more than always keeping you by my side!’
Right now, as they prepare for the daunting prospect of taking on European champions Liverpool at Anfield, players and De Laurentiis seem to want nothing more than to be as far away from each other as possible.
The players refused to go to a training retreat after they drew at home to Red Bull Salzburg
They now face the daunting task of taking on European champions Liverpool away at Anfield
One Napoli fan, who spoke to Sportsmail after Saturday’s 1-1 draw away to struggling AC Milan, claimed that De Laurentiis is to blame for the mess that has dominated the front and back pages in Italy.
‘I was raised with Napoli in difficult positions,’ he said. ‘We were in the third tier when I was 18. I would prefer a struggling side, sat in eighth or 10th so long as De Laurentiis was gone.’
Heading to Anfield with Insigne the latest, according to Gazzetta dello Sport, to be handed a £300,000 fine – 50 per cent of his gross monthly income – as part of sanctions on the players.
Letters were said to have been sent to the entire first-team squad from the offices of Mattia Grassani’s law firm in Bologna on Monday, detailing how much by way of fines De Laurentiis is placing on squad members, ahead of an arbitration committee to judge on the final sanctions.
In total, it is believed that a fee of €2.5million (£2.1m) is being sought by a furious De Laurentiis.
So how did it get to this? How did they go from unbeaten in three and top of Group E to battling a squad mutiny ahead of perhaps the most daunting trip in European football right now, a visit to take on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in their own backyard.
It all began the moment the final whistle sounded inside a disappointed Stadio San Paolo following a 1-1 draw with Red Bull Salzburg on November 5.
Pressure is mounting on boss Carlo Ancelotti and a heavy defeat could cost him his job
Fans have voiced anger at the situation by unfurling banners that read ‘Rispetto’ (Respect)
HEAD TO HEAD
October 2010: Napoli 0-0 Liverpool
November 2010: Liverpool 3-1 Napoli
October 2018: Napoli 1-0 Liverpool
December 2018: Liverpool 1-0 Napoli
September 2019: Napoli 1-0 Liverpool
Victory would have booked Napoli’s place in the knockout stages and kept them top. Instead, the draw saw them halted in pursuit of a last-16 berth and overtaken by Liverpool for top spot after they beat Genk at Anfield.
De Laurentiis organised the downbeat squad to go on a training retreat to Castel Volturno but Carlo Ancelotti’s players, stood in the dressing room, refused to go, opting to take their cars and drive home, igniting a civil war inside the club.
Such is the nature of the furious stand-off between the playing staff and the owner, De Laurentiis is now considering cutting his losses and letting some of his star players such as Kalidou Koulibaly, Mertens and Insigne leave.
The controversial president, who made his wealth through film production, claimed the players’ mutiny has damaged the reputation of the club worldwide, and image rights payments could still be withheld.
There’s been a lockdown at the club with players not allowed to talk to the press with them and Ancelotti barred from revealing their side of the story.
Fans protested outside the stadium prior to an open training session ahead of their match against Genoa, a drab 0-0, while others have vowed to stay away until the president sells up and walks away.
Anfield is a daunting ground to go to for any side in the world as Liverpool are unbeaten on their own patch in the Premier League and in European competition for the last 947 days
‘Rispetto‘ (Respect) read a large banner unfurled at a recent home match, while ultras have also taken aim at the players, many honing in on Neapolitan-born Insigne, for their ‘lack of respect’ towards the club.
And so to Liverpool, to Anfield, a ground where the Reds have not lost in 947 days, a side brimming with confidence in defending their title, a side capable of producing a performance that, for a club on its knees like Napoli, could get messy.
With Ancelotti seemingly hanging by a thread, a devastating defeat, coupled with a Salzburg victory over Genk, could see him frogmarched from the club’s HQ.
Plenty has changed on both sides since Napoli produced a late show to beat Klopp’s side 2-0 in Naples, Mertens and Fernando Llorente striking in the last 10 minutes.
Liverpool are over their early-season stutter and are a totally different beast on their own turf.
Many sides, in far better form than Napoli, currently languishing in seventh in Serie A, head to Anfield with belief they can upset their rampaging hosts. Perhaps, with no one giving them a hope, this beleaguered squad can thrive in adversity.
If Ancelotti is feeling philosophical as he addresses his players in the dressing room pre-match, the sound of You’ll Never Walk Alone bellowing through the bowels of the stadium, he could do worse than referring to 19th century American writer Napolean Hill.
In adversity, Napoli’s squad need to come together to pull off what would be a massive result
‘Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit,’ he once wrote. For Napoli, they desperately need something positive to come from one of the most turbulent periods in this decade.
Last season a solo strike from Mohamed Salah was all that separated the two sides and while some Napoli fans are fearful of a hammering, Ancelotti is a shrewd tactician at European level.
They will be without a number of primary attacking options, notably Insigne, and so expect Hirving Lozano to partner Mertens in attack, as they did in the 2-0 win back in Naples, should Ancelotti stick with a 4-4-2.
No wins in six games, taking on the Champions of Europe, their star striker out injured and a manager standing on the brink, for Napoli, Wednesday night under the Anfield lights is a chance to bring a club on its knees, back to its feet.