We had already written their sporting obituaries when the draw was made. How would Napoli, a side that hadn’t been in Europe’s top competition for 21 years, emerge from a group that included Bayern Munich, star-studded Manchester City and Giuseppe Rossi’s Villarreal? Even scrapping for third place and a ticket to the Europa League would’ve seemed a great achievement. Instead, we saw them show no fear as they debuted with a 1-1 at the City of Manchester Stadium. They were the only side to really scare Bayern before the Germans had qualified and they took advantage of Villarreal’s disastrous run. The Last 16 urn pitted them against powerhouses Chelsea, but again the little Partenopei with their insanely passionate supporters could only be beaten in extra time after scoring four goals in two games. Walter Mazzarri is right to say “my Napoli were fantastic in this Champions League.”
I stand and applaud Mazzarri, his Three Tenors and every player who worked their socks off to get them this far. Any right-minded fan of football should do the same, for Napoli played often spectacular football that was always open and attacking, never cowed nor arrogant, going head-to-head with among the biggest clubs in Europe. Not once did they seem out-matched, even at Stamford Bridge.
The 4-1 result on the night was incredibly harsh, especially considering Napoli were by far the more impressive team before Didier Drogba’s opener and Christian Maggio’s injury. Neither Milan-style complacency here, nor the kind of clichéd defensive approach an ITV commentator might call ‘typically Italian.’ If anything, the only side we saw play-acting and time-wasting in London was the Premier League darlings. I hope Drogba gets suspended or at least fined for feigning an elbow to the face in extra time. It won’t happen, but it’d be nice to send a signal.
So at the final whistle there is great sadness at seeing Napoli go out. We shall miss their fans’ full-throated singing ‘The Chaaampiooooooons!’ at the theme tune. The spectacle of Pocho Lavezzi bursting forward at incredible speed, or Edinson Cavani sneaking in between defenders. Marek Hamsik’s increasingly ludicrous hair. Hugo Campagnaro’s bright blue gumshield that made him look like he’d just stored his chewing gum under his lip. Every now and then being reminded of just how short Walter Gargano is. Mazzarri whipping off his jacket after a particularly emphatic touchline tantrum.
No more shall they be appreciated in Europe this season, but I can bet Napoli have done more than enough to earn themselves some new fans in Italy and all over the world. They’ll be back, maybe with more strength in depth and certainly with greater experience. I can’t wait.