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Why has Napoli failed to replicate its fine Serie A form in the Champions League?

While Napoli have done well in league football, the team has been inconsistent in Europe


SSC Napoli v Manchester City - UEFA Champions League
Napoli continue to flatter to deceive in European competitions

Napoli has been going great guns in Serie A but their UEFA Champions League campaign was an absolute disaster.

The team crashed out of the 2017/18 Champions League after losing to Dutch champions Feyenoord 2-1, consequently sending the talented Italian side down to the Europa League.

While the Partenopei needed to rely on Pep Guardiola's Manchester City to beat Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine, the Italian's slim chances of qualifying for the last 16 were dashed after the Ukrainian champions beat a second-string City outfit 2-1.

Maurizio Sarri - the orchestrator of Napoli's attacking style of play - did often struggle to get the best out of his talented players in the competition.

One of the reasons why the team tanked in the Champions League was due to injuries. After losing star defender Faouzi Ghoulam (the Algerian fullback sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury) the Napoli defence has looked exposed.

Napoli's squad lacks depth

Let's face it, one of the Azzurri's weaknesses for a while now has been the lack of depth in the squad.

At this stage, the Scudetto contenders just have enough players to steadily compete in Italy, but how far can these regular starters go until they are mentally and physically drained?

It might be too much to ask a club with a limited roster to play in Europe's most competitive competition, but why is it that Sarri and the Napoli board failed to purchase a good number of reinforcements in the last transfer window? A club of this caliber and size should be able to attract star players.

Southern Italian clubs often complain about how northern sides like Juventus are always spending, although for once Napoli should look at the significant work the Bianconeri are doing behind the scenes in order to build a squad capable of competing in domestic and continental competitions.

The squad issue will only persist if the Partenopei doesn't act quickly in the next transfer window. Being dropped to the Europa League will only stretch Napoli's squad the more, potentially hindering their Serie A title race with Juventus, Inter Milan, and AS Roma.

The Ciucciarelli, most of the time, boast a skillful starting XI that opposition fear, especially coming up against the exceptional quartet of Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, and Lorenzo Insigne.

However, it only takes one injury to disrupt Sarri's formation and tactics - something that has occurred on numerous occasions over the last two seasons.

With no Ghoulam at left back, which looks to be for the entire campaign, the southern Italians might continue to lack character in that part of the field.

Sarri has deployed both Mario Rui and Christian Maggio as rotating replacements for the Algerian international - who recently extended his contract with the Italians until 2022.

Rui is certainly a downgrade when it comes to experience. The 26-year-old loanee from AS Roma lacks the experience of European football and has regularly been loaned to different clubs - affecting his stability and time to grow in a particular team.

SSC Napoli v Manchester City - UEFA Champions League
A dejected Ghoulam now facing a season-ending knee injury

Christian Maggio, the other alternative replacement for Ghoulam, is now 35 years old and starting to show signs of decline. His exclusion from the starting XI and lack of game time for recent seasons have contributed to his uninspired performances. The former Sampdoria wing-back may have been an ideal replacement a couple of years ago but no longer.

Losing Arkadiusz Milik - the replacement for Gonzalo Higuain - with a season-ending knee injury last year, Sarri had no other choice but to adopt Dries Mertens as a false 9.

What transpired with the Belgian winger was phenomenal. While this case worked out to be a blessing in disguise, it has become evident whenever Insigne has gone missing.

The attacking midfielder missing out on the Champions League fixture against Feyenoord shows how crucial the 26-year-old is in the team's attack.


There was a sense of prioritizing the Serie A

Napoli has taken the Calcio by storm this season with people predicting that the team can win the Scudetto race. The Partenopei are determined to end their 27-year drought and put a stop to Juve's six-year supremacy.

But, as we have seen in the last couple of years, the same story on the European stage continues to repeat itself. The Ciucciarelli don't show the same attitude when it comes to playing in the Champions League.

It's as if Sarri has told his players to solely focus on the Italian league but if the Naples club doesn't maintain their focus and slip up on claiming the Scudetto, then there might be a backlash from fans.

Sarri's attacking revolution at Napoli since his arrival from Empoli has given the club a global identity in the footballing world. The 58-year-old tactician has made them renowned for playing some the most attractive football - a joy to watch when they are playing on top of their game.

In this season's Champions League, we have seen shades of Napoli's true potential. The second half display against Shakhtar on Matchday Five and several moments when the Neapolitans took on Manchester City looked to be promising signs.

It has become obvious though that Napoli has the tendency to lose confidence when they concede goals, even after they had either taken the lead or drawn level.


Napoli underestimated opponents especially Shakhtar Donetsk

Before Napoli kicked off their Champions League campaign in the group stages, Sarri and his men knew very little about Shakhtar Donetsk.

Knowing Manchester City was the strongest opponent in Group F, Italian football fans and Neapolitan supporters were optimistic about Napoli's chances of qualifying for the last 16.

Shakhtar unexpectedly beat the Partenopei 2-1 in the Ukraine on Matchday One, leaving the Italian club embarrassed when they travelled back to Naples. This was the defining moment of their Champions League campaign, one they paid for dearly.

If a lesson is to be learned here, it is not to misjudge any team, especially if they don't play in any of Europe's top-five leagues.

SSC Napoli v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League
Shakhtar Donetsk sending Napoli to the Europa League

Shakhtar (The Miners) are a well-drilled and organized side that boast Brazilian flair and are coached by an experienced Portuguese manager in Paulo Fonseca.

The ten-time Ukranian Premier League Champions are known to have produced several international stars in the past, including English Premier League sensations Henrik Mkhitaryan, Fernandinho, and Willian.

Napoli may have beaten the Ukrainian outfit in a dominant 3-0 victory on Matchday Five, however, their loss in the first fixture would come back to haunt them.

For now, Napoli will need to bounce back from the 1-0 loss to Juventus and take advantage when the Bianconeri goes against an undefeated and rejuvenated Inter Milan in this weekend's Serie A.

The difficult situation now for the Partenopei will be to balance Serie A and Europa League fixtures. But, the question that majority of Serie A followers and Napoli fans are asking is, which Napoli side will we see for the remainder of this season?


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