The stage was set, as two of Europe’s most exhilarating, forward thinking sides went head-to-head to establish themselves as the darlings of modern football. Both Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri embarked on friendly war of words pre-game, striving to out-compliment each other, and expressing their appreciation of each other’s wonderfully swashbuckling approach to football.
“I think Man City are by far the strongest team in Europe at the moment” proclaimed Sarri, but even he would have struggled to imagine his words would take on an almost prophetic, self-defeating angle. This was the night that Napoli realised that if they are to take the next step, they must believe in themselves.
Sarri’s openness in expressing his fear of Manchester City however possibly demonstrates an inferiority complex, and in practice exposed a lack of alternative strategy and cutting edge when the chips are down.
Manchester City’s utter domination for 30 minutes left Napoli on the ropes, with the Italians seemingly completely unprepared for the intensity of Guardiola’s approach. After City raced to a 2-0 lead with 15 minutes, it would not have been surprising to expect a cricket score by the time the full 90 passed, and this is wholly worrying for Napoli.
The Azzurri may well be able to blow their Serie A competition away through the sheer quality of their players and speed of passing, and this defeat does little to diminish the effectiveness of their tactics in domestic competition.
However, Sarri’s insistence on attacking prowess may well stifle their defensive capabilities, and although battling back valiantly against Manchester City, they still found themselves playing catch up to a self-inflicted early mental lapse.
Napoli’s eventual charge in the second half saw them grasp a foothold in the game, but they failed to hit the levels of liquidity which sees them sweep domestic competition aside. Amadou Diawara’s wonderfully taken penalty gave Sarri’s side hope, but the Guinean’s composure if anything papers over the cracks that Napoli need to find another gear when against such opposition. Their golden threesome of Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens couldn’t find the clinical touch they so often display, and given their calamitous start, the trio’s magic was needed more than ever.
The similarities between Guardiola and Sarri are striking: both managers provide an oasis of free-flowing, fearless football in an often overly-conservative barren landscape. Both ooze charisma, and both subscribe to a style of football which can often be unnecessarily risky. Most importantly, they both believe in persistence, and such devotion to a philosophy is commendable.
Nonetheless, Sarri will continue to push Napoli forward and keep our jaws rooted to the ground through the insatiable football they play. A showdown which promised a glut of goals fell short of expectations, with Napoli’s uncharacteristically blunt attack failing to capitalise on the chance after chance Manchester City gifted them.
However, we must continue to ask questions of Sarri’s Napoli, and when their notoriously shaky defence takes 15 minutes to spring into life, there has to be an inquest. Pep Guardiola’s penchant for hyperbole was possibly demonstrated post-match as he described Napoli as “the hardest team he had faced.” Given Guardiola has viewed Napoli on a day when they showed little of what they were capable of, Sarri can only wish that his side had demonstrated their true self.
The Napoli manager will have left the Etihad Stadium balancing a typically fiery rage with an encouraging optimism, which poses the question of what could have been. Napoli may have reached their pinnacle in Italy, but must grow on the continent if they are to reach the latter stages of the Champions League. At such a high level, simply winning plaudits and troubling the opposition is not enough. Perfection is the pre-requisite.