The San Paolo is always going to make noise and tonight was no different despite only 15,000 attending Napoli’s crucial Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk. In fairness, the game was free on local television, but the absence of the crowd perhaps symbolised the enthusiasm for winning the Scudetto over progress in Europe’s premier competition.
Napoli would make it look easy in the end, despite a poor first half, but is qualification worth it? It could easily be a glittering prize that turns out to bite them, it could be their Trojan horse.
In the build up to the game against Shakhtar Donetsk, Maurizio Sarri referred to the fixture as one of the biggest games of the Partenopei’s season. He understood anything less than a victory would knock them out of the Champions League.
The campaign had not gone smoothly and, despite the Azzurri’s electric Serie A form that has seen them win 11 and draw just two, this so far hasn’t translated on to the European stage. Defeat in Ukraine and two entertaining but ultimately fruitless matches against Manchester City, meant that they were on the verge of going out.
Whilst they knew they only had a small chance of success. Sarri was determined that his team should not be eliminated without giving everything. By his own admission, the Coach underestimated the Ukrainians in the opening match, but was now aware of their frightening counter-attack.
Napoli in truth were lethargic and, despite creating some half chances, rode out the first half in an unusual and unenthused manner. Perhaps it was the crowd, perhaps it was the realisation that they had little chance, but they went in at the break goalless and with a whimper.
The second half had more pace, but it took an incredible strike from Lorenzo Insigne, a good finish from Piotr Zielinski and a rare Dries Mertens header to finish Shakhtar off. This meant that Napoli would still have a chance of progress, but would this derail their Scudetto challenge?
For one thing, whilst Napoli’s squad is multi-talented, it is not the deepest in the league and the season still has a long way to go. Despite what Sarri may say, the Coach has learned from the lessons of Gonzalo Higuain, and cannot rely solely on one or two players.
Despite saying that Insigne is as important to Napoli as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are to their respective clubs and therefore cannot be rested, this may well be folly. Insigne has played in every game for the Neapolitans so far this campaign, but outside of the collective group of critical importance (Marek Hamsik, Mertens, Jose Callejon, Kalidou Koulibaly, Allan and Insigne) has Sarri really got the squad to go deep in the Champions League and compete in Serie A? Overplaying certain individuals may cost them and this again points at the concerns around a long European campaign.
Even in the game against Shakhtar, things were taking their toll as Koulibaly was suspended and Mario Rui was not fully fit. Napoli need to play with a cavalier attitude that demands collective hunting in packs and a utilitarian approach to defending. It is no surprise that their rivals Juventus have often struggled to play at 100 per cent in Serie A games after Champions League matches and it is only their superb squad depth (and in recent years the gap between them and the rest in the division) that has made them able to win games in second gear at times.
The Juventus analogy is an interesting one, because they are showing that even with their wealth of talent it may be a struggle to compete on two fronts this year. This could leave a door open in Naples and just think of that, a Scudetto going to Napoli, surely this is worth more than a deep run in a competition that they will no doubt qualify for next season? There is also Inter and Roma, after all.
Despite the victory, arguably Napoli do not need the Champions League. Their strength in depth is the main argument (but on the other side they may have fallen in to the Europa League) and the enthusiasm for the Scudetto over Europe’s most prestigious tournament it’s obvious in the city. The Neapolitans know that this is one of their biggest chances since the days of Diego Maradona to win the title they want so much and nothing, absolutely nothing, should get in the way of this.