Halfway through the first round, the picture of group F is taking shape. If it wasn’t already clear, it is now obvious that Manchester City will be carrying this group. The English side remains perfect while Napoli, Feyenoord and Shaktar trail the leaders. Feyenoord appear to be the side that will be all together knocked out of European competition. They haven’t picked up a single point and they have been thoroughly underwhelming. Of course it is too early to rule anything out but it seems impossible to me that they could win 2 matches and usurp Shaktar for the second and final spot in the round of 16.
For the Partenopei, the table seems to indicate that there is cause for concern. Although most of us were expecting a stronger start from the Neapolitans, it is not yet time to hit the Champion’s League panic button. The three-point gap that separates Napoli from Shaktar can instantly be closed at the San Paolo when the two teams meet in what is certainly a must win game. In fact, that game is so crucial that there is little point even discussing scenarios in which Napoli fail to win that match. Luckily for Napoli, they haven’t yet dropped such crucial points; teams cannot be said to be out of it before they’ve lost a match at home, luckily for Napoli supporters that is not yet the case. The road to safety is relatively simple for Napoli. At the bare minimum, to even have a chance, 2 wins are needed. In my view, a total of 9 points could be enough if Napoli put a couple past Shaktar. That being said, depending on goal differential is far from being a safe strategy. Moreover, setting 9 points as the target bar relies on Shaktar not getting a result with City. For that reason, Napoli must take points at the San Paolo when they play City.
Napoli’s next Champion’s League match is a crucial fixture for two reasons. The first being that they need points at all costs if they want to survive the group stage. This is self-evident. If you you can’t collect enough points in the limited opportunities afoorsed, you cannot go through to the next round and although the slow start in the group is not yet fatal it could soon prove to be. The second reason is somewhat cynical. Napoli will need City to be firing on all cylinders when they visit the Ukraine – if they want to safely overtake Shaktar, Napoli need Shaktar to lose against City again. Although Napoli cannot directly have a role in that match (for obvious reasons) keeping the fight for first place alive will pressure City into playing a full strength squad and actively trying to beat the Ukrainians. If Napoli lose against the Brits for a second time, Man City’s conquest of group F will likely be all but assured by the time they visit the Ukraine. Teams in the thick of a domestic title challenge have been known to rest players for meaningless games in faraway cities.
Though it is not yet time to panic for Napoli, they have dug themselves a bit of a hole by failing to take a single point on the road. If they want to maintain control of their destiny, the Neapolitans will need to take something from their upcoming match with Manchester City.