Against Portuguese league leaders Benfica in Lisbon tonight, Napoli head into one of those games which could change the Neapolitan club’s entire season. In a tight Champions League qualifying Group B, Napoli and Benfica go into this game tied on eight points with Turkish club, Besiktas, just one point behind.
In other words, all three clubs still have a chance of qualifying. Given that Besiktas will fancy their chances away to already eliminated Dinamo Kiev, it is very possible that tonight’s game at the Estàdio da Luz ends up being a straightforward, do or die, knock-out encounter between Benfica and Napoli.
If that proves to be the case, then Napoli have the advantage of going into this one slightly ahead on goal difference, 9-7 as opposed to 9-8. In other words, a draw will see Napoli into the second round.
It might be that the Sporting Gods feel that they owe one to Napoli. The last time that the Neapolitan club qualified for the Champions League Group section, in the 2013-2014 season, they played some good football, knocked up 12 points and ended joint top of the table with both Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal but were still eliminated on goal difference.
Napoli coach, Maurizio Sarri, is all too aware, however, that his side had better not take the field thinking about either a draw or about their 4-2 win in the first leg of this tie in Naples. In his eve of match press conference, Sarri said:
“We can’t be thinking about the game in Naples nor about the other tie in this group. There are already so many issues that could block us mentally so if we don’t want to have any doubts, we’ve got to take to the pitch with just one thought – win the game and win the group…”
Currently fourth in Serie A, eight points behind leaders Juventus, Napoli are obviously tempted to put all their eggs into their European competition basket. No one at Napoli says it out loud, obviously, but at this stage a title challenge against Juventus, along the lines of their months long tussle of last season, seems highly unlikely.
Apart from anything else, this season’s Napoli is bereft of its iconic Argentine striker, Gonzalo Higuain, scorer of an historic 36 Serie A goals last season but now with Juventus in the wake of his €94 million euro buy-out in the summer, Worse still, the player who replaced him, Pole Arek Milik is still recovering from a cruciate knee ligament injury, picked up during Poland’s 3-2 World Cup qualifier win against Denmark in October.
Qualification for the second round of the Champions League would not only earn Napoli the usual handsome dividends of millions of euro but arguably it will be worth even more to them in terms of giving a sense to the second half of their season. The good news for Napoli fans, however, is that if current form is anything to go by, then Napoli are up for it tonight.
Their 3-0 trouncing of Inter at the San Paolo last Friday night was probably their best performance of the season, notwithstanding their current lack of a genuine striker up front. With Lorenzo Insigne on one wing and Spaniard José Callejon on the other wing, Sarri has alternated Manolo Gabbiadini and Belgian Dries Mertens in the central striker role.
Neither man looks remotely like a central striker but both are good enough footballers to adapt and occasionally make do. For tonight’s all-important game, Sarri may start with Gabbiadini, holding Mertens in reserve if and when the match goes against Napoli.
A key figure tonight has to be Slovak Marek Hamsik, the Napoli captain, the side’s playmaker and a player whose experience will be essential if Napoli are to ride out the tense atmosphere of what amounts to an away Cup Final. Like the rest of the Napoli squad, he was sounding good on the eve of the game, saying:
“We haven’t come here to defend. We will be playing out football as we have done in the first leg and in all our group games…”
BENFICA: (4-4-2) Ederson; Semedo, Luisao, Lindelof, Almeida; Salvio, Fejsa, Pizzi, Cervi; Guedes, Mitroglou
NAPOLI: (4-3-3) Reina; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Allan, Diawara, Hamsik; Callejon, Gabbiadini, Insigne