At the end of a week of nationwide trauma inflicted by Italy’s elimination from next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia, there may be even more international pain in store for Italian football this week. That could come via Serie A leaders Napoli, currently two points clear of second placed Inter, following a 2-1 home win against AC Milan last Saturday night.
The disappointing reality of Napoli’s situation in their Champions League Group F is that, with two games to play, their prospects of qualification are hanging by the thinnest of threads. Having opened their campaign with a 2-1 away defeat by Ukraine side Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli in the meantime have twice played well but still twice lost to Premiership leaders Man City. With just one win (against Feyenoord) in four games, Napoli are now third in the group on three points, nine behind City and six behind Shakhtar.
Put simply, even if Napoli win their remaining two games, at home to Shakhtar tomorrow night and away to Feyenoord on December 6th, they risk elimination. To secure an unlikely qualification, Napoli not only need to win both games (either by 1-0 or two clear goals against Shakhtar) but they must also then rely on Man City to defeat Shakhtar in Ukraine in what will almost certainly be a relatively meaningless final group game for the Premiership leaders.
Speaking on the eve of tonight’s game, Shakhtar’s Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca was full of praise for the quality of Napoli’s football. Speaking after he had beaten Napoli twice, Man City manager Pep Guardiola had been full of similar praise. Complimentary remarks from Maurizio Sarri’s colleagues may be welcome but Napoli still risk being left with just that, i.e compliments and an elimination. Furthermore, with commanding central defender, Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly, ruled out of tomorrow night’s game, a home win against the useful Shakhtar cannot be taken for granted.
At a moment when Italian morale is understandably wobbly, the sight of the (currently) leading team in the country not making it through the Champions League group stage will be certain to rub salt in some very fresh wounds. That salt, too, was in evidence at the San Paolo last Saturday night as Napoli’s gifted striker, Lorenzo Insigne, gave yet another demonstration of just why many consider him the hottest Italian striker in Italian football at the moment.
Once more, the critics asked why, oh why, did coach Gian Piero Ventura use Insigne for only the last 15 minutes of Italy’s away tie against Sweden 10 days ago and not at all in the return leg of the play-off last Monday night at the San Siro. Not only did Insigne score a typical “peach” of a goal against Milan but he also hit the post, was involved in much of Napoli’s best football and was their best player on the night.
Sunday’s Gazzetta Dello Sport carried a provocative headline that read, “Insigne Mondiale”, something of a play on words since “mondiale” means world class whilst the plural “mondiali” means the World Cup finals. Not just that but the headline asked: “Hey Ventura, Did You See That?”
If Napoli do go out of the Champions League, they will have only themselves to blame for their failure to grab an away point in their opening game against Shakhtar. However, it might be proof that, whatever else, Dame Fortune is not always on their side in the Champions. Remember, four seasons back, the Rafa Benitez coached Napoli went out at the Group stage on goal difference after they finished joint top of their Group with both Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, all three on 12 points in a group in which Olympique Marseilles lost all six games.
In contrast, Napoli’s close home rivals, Old Lady Juventus and AS Roma, both are looking comfortable in their groups. Roma, fresh from an exciting 2-1 derby win on Saturday against Lazio, go into their away tie against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday top of their group, one point clear of Chelsea and five clear of Atletico. Clearly, they are looking good for the second round.
As should also be the Old Lady, even if she sits second, three points behind group leaders, Barcelona, but three clear of third placed Sporting Lisbon. However, Juventus rather dirtied her bib on Sunday, going down to only her second league defeat of the season when beaten 3-2 away to Sampdoria. What was worrying about that result is that, with 91 minutes played, the scoreline was 3-0. Two late Juventus goals restored a certain respectability to the scoreline but they cannot hide the fact that, for at least half an hour in the second half, the Old Lady went strangely missing.
Wednesday night’s home tie against old rivals Barcelona may not be exactly what the doctor ordered as a “buck-you-upper” back to top form but the Italian champions may well be keen to avenge their 3-0 drubbing in the first leg, at the Camp Nou back in September. Currently third in Serie A, four points behind Napoli, Juventus have given the impression this autumn of being a side which is saving its best work for the springtime when the Champions League/Serie A contests become all-decisive.
Perhaps the sight of Leo Messi and friends will persuade the Old Lady to put her best foot forward. Heaven knows, in the week that is in it, a convincing international performance by an Italian side is badly needed.