As rumours circulated that Pep Guardiola texted Maurizio Sarri proclaiming that Manchester City would “do their best” to secure a win against Shakhtar Donetsk, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who would have predicted the eventual outcome on bettinglounge. A simple three points for City and a routine dispatching of Feyenoord by Napoli would have seen the darlings of football hipster culture waltz through to the last 16, just as the script set out.
Fast forward to Monday and Napoli are the glaring omission from the Champions League draw. A difficult balancing act has seen Sarri’s loyalties divided, and a catalogue of errors eventually led to the worst possible scenario for Napoli.
Their targeting of a first Scudetto since 1990 has understandably seen them prioritise domestic matters, and given Napoli’s chances of succeeding compared to the European crown, it is hard to argue against this logic. However, having improved their depth over the summer with the likes of Mario Rui and Adam Ounas arriving to give them impressive rotational options, blame seemingly lies elsewhere.
A growing feeling, emphasised after Napoli’s defeat against Juventus, is that their style may well be intrinsically self-defeating. Winning the undying admiration of the football world is one thing, but winning titles is something else, and as of now Sarri has delivered nothing.
Sarri’s style is undeniably magnificent, but by nature it is one which demands continuity and consistency. This in turn breeds a culture of minimal rotation, as in order for Sarri to sustain Napoli’s efficiency, the inclusion of Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens is necessary. By arguably working Napoli’s golden three to the bone, Napoli’s domestic and European conquests lie embroiled in a lingering fear of burnout at the worst possible time.
Insigne’s injury, occurring after he had staggeringly started all of Napoli’s last 60 competitive matches, indicates this aversion to comprehensive rotation, and it is perfectly viable to suggest this has negatively impacted their European commitments.
Not so much indignity rather than unwanted distraction, the Europa League for Napoli is nothing less than a potentially catastrophic pothole in their road to the Scudetto. Napoli’s double defeat against Manchester City was dignified, but no points are awarded for style. Managing a solitary point against Manchester City is a feat in itself, but compound such failings with just six points taken from their meetings with Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk make this a mess of Napoli’s making. Napoli have grossly misjudged and fumbled the Champions League, and by denying it the respect it deserves, they are now paying the price.
Effort must be made not to discredit Shakhtar Donetsk, who under the Zorro-masked Paulo Fonseca have masterminded an exceptional progression alongside Manchester City. However, Napoli’s undeniably superiority at a squad level to Shakhtar Donetsk is patently evident, and Sarri must shoulder the blame for their fixture mismanagement.
Napoli must now plan ahead, and continue to focus solely on their title challenge. With Inter announcing themselves as viable contenders along with the Old Lady, the Partenopei have their work cut out should they lift the trophy they desire more than any other.
While Napoli will pay the price for their Champions League failings with a stint in a competition they deem irrelevant, Inter and Juventus face a much more desirable fixture list. Sarri must learn from his mistakes, and should Napoli fail to win the Scudetto, adopting a policy of unwavering single-mindedness and disregard for anything other than Serie A is a huge gamble to take.