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Friday February 25 2011
Curb your Azzurri enthusiasm

In the wake of their Europa League exit to Villarreal, Rob Paton takes a look at its significance on Napoli's title hopes and their longer-term ambitions

Whilst the Europa League loss at Villarreal carried little significance for Napoli eyes set on Serie A, the manner of the performances across the two legs proved interesting. Luck and a failure to convert some gilt-edged chances contributed to their European exit, but so too did patterns of play that teams other than Villarreal have also been able to take advantage of – ones that become more significant with Napoli's short and long-term targets on the horizon.

They were the latest in a select number highlighting that despite fortune with injuries, Napoli without a tactical plan B in place are susceptible to certain styles of play. The first leg saw Villarreal's back four and two defensive midfielders' organisation generally frustrate the Azzurri in a result more advantageous to the visitors. Similar strong defensive displays from Sampdoria, Bari, Fiorentina and Chievo have out-thought Walter Mazzarri's trident attack and wing-based play to take points off them.

Whilst Mazzarri's 3-4-1-2 has otherwise been responsible for all that has worked going forward, it has also struggled in countering teams able to flood the final third themselves. In the second leg in Spain, Napoli were unable to deal with runners predominantly from central midfield or on the blind side of the two outside centre-backs. Overwhelming the defence, this occasional vulnerability has forced dropped points against the likes of Inter, Milan, Udinese, Chievo again and Lazio.

Whilst priorities lay elsewhere and changes made to the team to reflect this, the reasons Villarreal beat Napoli are the same reasons that others have. Stats also suggest it is not an issue with squad size – Napoli so far using two players more than Udinese and two fewer than Lazio in the League. Where they have dropped points when forced to make key changes – Udinese 15 without Alexis Sanchez, Lazio 17 when replacing one of the back four – Napoli have dropped 10 when the first XI have played and 11 more when one of the starting line-up – any of the XI – has changed.

Consider the fact Napoli's key man Edinson Cavani has played in every League game to date and that his goals and assists directly account for 17 of the Partenopei's 52. Should he pick up an injury, it is arguable it could have a similar impact as Udinese and Lazio have felt this term, and then the points the first XI have relinquished become the difference between the teams again. Whilst four points ahead of Lazio and eight ahead of Udinese looks comfortable, the reliance on Cavani for this season and next, combined with how the Azzurri have dropped points, looks less so.

Napoli's rise has been exceptional, borne of form and fortune, but off the back of it so have the circumstances that see them currently sit in second. Milan lead the table at this stage with the lowest points total since 2001-02. Next season it is hard to envisage so many of the Partenopei's intended long-term competitors dropping as many points as they have this term, and Mazzarri's men getting away with a full-strength squad freely being out-thought by lesser sides.

Performances against Palermo, Juventus and Roma have fans believing the club's ambitions of top four longevity or even a title push are realistic, but weaknesses exposed by well-drilled or in-form teams from Chievo to Villarreal need to be heeded.

They suggest there is still work to be done to ensure this season ends as intended, and that it is followed up with an intelligent transfer campaign to allow for a plan B to develop and for Napoli to become a regular fixture in the top four, as they intend.

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