As Raheem Sterling arrowed his shot into the bottom right hand corner of Pepe Reina’s goal at the San Paolo, there was a certain sense of déjà vu about the outcome of the match. We had seen this play out before.
Much of the criticism levelled at the group stage of the Champions League has been justified in recent years. The dearth of interesting matches in the earliest rounds and the general procession-like feel to many of the groups has resulted in declining television ratings. The two clashes between Napoli and Man City, however, have been games for the purists, with both teams showcasing the very best of what the competition ought to be about.
From a Neapolitan perspective, there was a lot to admire in how Maurizio Sarri’s men caused City more problems over the course of the two games than any other side - and many who have transfer budgets twice or thrice the size of Napoli’s – has managed this season.
City couldn’t live with Napoli’s intense pressing and intricate short passing in the opening half-hour, a rare feeling for a Pep Guardiola team. Lorenzo Insigne’s sumptuously worked goal was their just reward for how good Sarri’s tactical plan was. Do unto City as they do unto others.
Yet it mirrored previous European games from Napoli’s recent past, once the tempo inevitably slowed and City started to see more of the ball and dictate play, Napoli failed to remain solid under attack.
This game had echoes of last season’s home match against Real Madrid: a lightening start, a superb goal, failure to increase the lead whilst dominant, concede from a corner, pile forward in search of goals and get hit on the counter. It was uncanny how much these nights, eight months apart, resembled each other.
For Sergio Ramos, see John Stones. For Alvaro Morata, see Sergio Aguero.
In the aftermath of the game, Sarri commented on Napoli’s lack of height throughout the team, and their vulnerability at set pieces. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it doesn’t take away from the fact that when not in possession, defensively they fail to weather the storm. The frailties at the back that were evidenced last season still haven’t been rectified.
Even the key turning point in the game, the injury of the brilliant Faouzi Ghoulam (that has now been confirmed as a rupture of his ACL), has shades of yesteryear about it. Napoli failed to regain their composure following his substitution and therefore lost all their momentum.
This was reminiscent of Napoli’s second leg clash with Chelsea some five-and-a-half years ago. Having won the first leg 3-1 in Naples, they travelled to Stamford Bridge with one foot in the quarter-final. Christian Maggio, a key component in Walter Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 system, went off injured and Napoli promptly fell apart, eliminated 5-4 on aggregate. Ironically, it was Maggio who replaced Ghoulam against Chelsea.
Whilst there’s no correlation between the coaching ideals of Sarri and Mazzarri, it speaks to a continual weakness in their game: if something unexpectedly derails their flow, they cannot recover from it.
Napoli are now in a position where qualification to the knockout round is out of their hands, yet relegation to the Europa League should not be viewed as the burden many see it as.
A deep run in that competition would give Sarri’s men further European experience, a chance to refine their game and iron out the defensive kinks that have cost them time and again when dealing with some of Europe’s elite.
It remains to be seen whether Sarri will grasp that opportunity. Serie A is clearly the objective this season with the real belief that they can win their first league title for 28 years.