Napoli’s match against Kyiv was disappointing. Fans watched as the team lacked incision early and then fell into a conservative defensive style as the game went on. In fact, the supporters and the San Paolo whistled and jeered as Reina wasted the final minutes of stoppages. Although it was painful to watch Napoli sit back against Dynamo, the result, as disappointing as it seemed, was positive. If Napoli had found a way to crack the Dynamo defense and win the match, the team would be in a very similar situation to the one they are in now.
Leading up to the match
When Napoli stepped on to the pitch for their warmup Benfica had a commanding 3-0 lead over Besiktas. As Sarri noted in his post-match press conference, there was a high level of enthusiasm; the players knew that if the result in Turkey held, and it seemed likely that it would, a win would put them through. The situation seemed simple, win and go through. However, at the start of the match in Naples, everything had changed. The Turkish giants had fought back and tied the match in an unlikely and undesirable turn of events. Napoli would not be able to clinch qualification on Wednesday no matter what. A loss would have greatly complicated things but the difference between a draw and win was marginal. Regardless of whether they won versus Kyiv, Napoli would have needed a positive result to secure qualification on the final match day. Napoli’s risk free match was largely indicative of the fact that they had to avoid defeat at all costs.
The Match in Portugal
Napoli are not in a great spot right now but that has little to do with the result on Wednesday. Rather, this can be traced back to the disappointing home match with Besiktas. At the start of the group, I had circled the away match at Benfica as the most difficult one. They are a tough team with a difficult stadium to play in. I was hoping, and perhaps prematurely, expecting that the match would be meaningless, with Napoli having already topped the group. I couldn’t have been further off.
The Strategy Against Benfica
What we now know is that a draw is enough. What we don’t know is how that will affect the way Napoli approaches the match. The return of Albiol has allowed the backline to play more solidly, and they certainly looked much stronger on Wednesday than they had in the previous month or so. The issue is however, how much pressure can Napoli put on them before they snap? In my view, it would be a poor strategy to approach the Benfica match with the goal of scraping through with a draw. Although Napoli have had trouble finding the back of the net against good teams recently (not having a cf will do that to you), Sarri cannot aim for a goalless draw. Although he has struggled recently, Gabbiadini looked bright against Kyiv and I hope to see him start the match against Benfica. Moreover, the absence of Marko Rog has been puzzling and frustrating. The young Croatian is a talented and creative player who could likely provide a spark to a side that has been predictable of late. Hopefully Sarri is able to work him into the squad soon so that he can help the team make that final Champions League push. Reina and the rest of the Napoli defense have simply been too error prone to depend on a draw, despite offensive woes. The Azzuri need to come out firing and aim for the win; our reputation as the ‘almost but not quite’ club needs to end in Lisbon.
By Nikolas De Stefano