Napoli lost 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine last night, with the hosts opting to take the game to Maurizio Sarri’s side.
Words: Matthew Santangelo
Despite playing around 300km north of Donetsk in Kharkiv, due to the ongoing civil war afflicting their home city, Shakhtar were cheered on by a large, passionate crowd and Paulo Fonseca’s side appeared to feed off that.
Despite playing a highly-praised attacking team in Sarri’s Napoli, from the beginning, the Ukrainians piled numbers forward, approaching their visitors with conviction.
While the Partenopei looked to carry out their regular game plan, carving out some chances in the first half, they appeared unsettled by a side coming at them with such vigour.
The familiar quick passing we’re used to seeing from Sarri’s side was hampered by Shakhtar’s pressing, as well as some quick passing of own, as they refused to allow the Italians to settle.
The home side deserve credit for this approach, as Napoli have taken apart many sides playing such open football, but despite enduring the odd scare they defended well with a solid shape.
There is of course no need to panic for Napoli, this was the first match of the group stage and Ukraine is always a tough place to go.
However, this match showed that if their trademark game isn’t flowing - or isn’t allowed to flow - they can become frustrated, with a relatively shaky backline and goalkeeper exposed by a side which just wouldn’t let them settle on the ball.
It was a similar story against Real Madrid in the Last 16 last year, and while there’s no shame in losing to Los Merengues, or indeed to Shakhtar, this match shows that a change of mentality may be needed for some European games.
The Partenopei can be unstoppable at their best, but last night’s match showed they can be beatable if Plan A isn’t at its brilliant best.