Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli are all tied with six points in Champions League Group F. Each of the three sides has beaten Marseille, and each side has won one, lost one against the top three. So the Wednesday night match at the San Paolo could have huge implications for Napoli's chance to make it through to the knockout stages -- drop points in Naples and it's probably all over. Yet this match isn't the biggest of the partenopei week. And Rafa Benítez is going to have to figure out how to balance the must-win in Europe with the absolutely-must-win-has-huge-implications-for-the-scudetto-even-though-it's-only-week-12 in Turin.
So how can Rafa's men do it? Typically, particularly at home, Napoli play a high pressure game right from the start, trying to force the opponents to give up an early goal. And it usually works -- Napoli have scored more goals in the first fifteen minutes than any other side in the league. Then, after about an hour, after the other side has given up the will to live, Benítez lets his top players rest and brings on the second strings.
But that strategy hasn't worked thus far in the Champions League. Napoli's earliest goal has come in the 29th minute, when Gonzalo Higuaín scored in the reverse against Marseille. And in both matches where Napoli came out eventual winners, they also conceded a late goal (and yes, Camilo Zúñiga's last minute own goal against Dortmund counts). Considering the haphazard mess of Napoli's current defense, it's possible that none of the regular starting XI is going to see much time to rest before the Juventus match.
The defense against Marseille is very nearly a given: Christian Maggio, Federico Fernández, Raúl Albiol and Pablo Armero. Gazetta suggested that, against Juventus, Paolo Cannavaro step in for Albiol. While it seems laughable that "captain" Cannavaro would step in at any time under Rafa, if he's going to be used, it should be against Marseille. There's absolutely no way we want to see Cannavaro going up against Carlos Tévez, Fernando Llorente, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, or, for goodness sake, even Sebastian Giovinco. If Albiol needs a rest, it must be in this match.
For big matches, in front of the slightly terrifying defense usually stand Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami. It's been Blerim Džemaili partnered with one of the other two Swiss for two of the three last league matches, and he's actually done quite well. Considering how often Inler and Behrami need a rest (and no wonder!) it might make more sense to start Džemaili, and save the destructive duo for Sunday evening. Should things get a little dicey, Iner can always come in for the last 20-30 minutes to beef up the defense.
Or, you know, José Callejón could run back there and keep things tidy. Yeah, the Spaniard's got it in him, as we saw against Catania. Edy who? That's six goals for Ziggy and, with him getting a bit of a rest recently, he's got to be picked to start both this one and against Juventus. So must Marek Hamšík, who's back in form after sitting out -- surprisingly -- against Fiorentina. We've seen what happens in the absence of Marek and know that he's a necessity to get the attack flowing. Let's just hope that it's good Hamšík that comes out to play, not the one that misplaces passes and scuffs his shots.
Gonzalo Higuaín is likely a must for most people -- remember how he had to sit against Arsenal and seeing Goran Pandev start a Champions League match was one of the most terrifying things ever? The real problem with Higuaín at the moment is his obvious desperation to score. Each minute that goes by without a goal leads him to try even more ridiculous shots, rather than lay off the ball for his teammates. A rest might kick him in to gear for the Juventus match, but Marseille isn't that safe that Pipita can sit out. No, he's just going to have to be exhausted for the international break. Tough luck, Argentina.
Finally, we come to the left side. That's got to be Rafa's biggest head scratcher. It also has to be a wonderful conundrum to have: two fantastic left-sided attackers, both able to hassle the defense with tricky footwork, both with outstanding free kicks, both able to work their way into dangerous positions. So who starts for Napoli -- Dries Mertens or Lorenzo Insigne?
It was Insigne that got the nod against Catania, which likely means he'll be the one on the bench for this match. That would make sense from an objective point of view: Mertens is looking ever so slightly better than the young Italian, so he should be the one starting Champions League fixtures. Some thought Insigne looked a bit off the pace in Saturday's match, disappearing for long stretches and not doing much of anything. But it was Lorenzo that set up Marek for the second goal, as well as creating a few more chances, both for himself and teammates, that were saved by Mariano Andújar. It's possible that we fans of the partenopei simply have extremely high expectations for Illustrious, and if he isn't absolutely spectacular, he's subject to criticism.
Mertens, however, has been spectacular. He'd be the one I'd favor to start against Juventus, giving the Champions League to Insigne. Like Gonzalo, Lorenzo is getting a bit too desperate for a league goal. The pressure for Insigne may actually be higher against Juventus, with the little guy's passion for the team translating into off-target shots and, possibly, cards shown. Mertens would be more effective at frustrating Juve, it seems, as the Belgian has a bit more of a considered approach to the game. Let Insigne torture the Marseille defense instead.
So, with Juventus in mind, what would be the ideal starting XI for Napoli on Wednesday?
Ok, so I'm not so great at putting players exactly where they need to go, but hey, you get the idea. What are your thoughts? Do you think Napoli should concentrate on Juventus and play it a bit risky against Marseille, or do you think a certain three points in the Champions League is more essential?