Napoli are out of the Champions League. That sucks. It hurts, especially with how it happened. But now we have to move on, figure out what's next, and plan for the rest of the season.
Beyond figuring out what to do with the last few days of the transfer window, Napoli have a few other questions to answer.
What To Do About Rafa
Rafa Benitez is a very good manager, we cannot question that. His history of success at other clubs makes that a pretty undeniable fact. Heck, he lead Napoli to new records in points and goals scored last season, as well as the Coppa Italia title.
However, this tie against Athletic Bilbao brought something back in to stark focus that came up too many times last season: Napoli too often look utterly flat and unprepared against teams they should be able to beat. They lost points and matches far too many times to lower-table teams last season, and good fortune saw them through against Marseilles and Swansea last season in European fixtures.
Now, in Napoli's two biggest games in a long time, that lack of preparation seemed to rear its ugly head again. Napoli seemed to come out with a game plan that was never going to be effective against Bilbao, then looked utterly shocked to be getting pressed so hard by their opponents, despite high pressure being a hallmark of Bilbao the last few years. Couple that with some questionable-at-best lineup choices, and Napoli were left ripe for the upset, and upset they were.
Add that to the horrifying defensive mistakes that undid Napoli in the second half, and everything points back at things that come back to the manager: poor coaching, poor preparation, and poor decision making. Rafa was as ineffective in this tie as we've ever seen him, and you have to wonder how safe his job is now. Aurelio De Laurentiis has fired managers for less.
So that's the question, then: does Napoli fire Rafa and move on, or does the club give him their support despite this bitter disappointment? If He's kept, ADL needs to give him a very clear "win or else" mandate, and if the Scudetto chase starts to slip away at all, Napoli will get a new manager, have no doubt about that.
Of course, who a new manager would be is up for question, be it now or later down the line. This squad is mostly set up for Rafa's style of play, but the players for the most part can fit a variety of systems (though probably not any with a three man back line barring new signings). There's not a lot of good managers available at the moment, however, unless ADL can sweet-talk someone in to resigning their current post.
All In On The League
With success in the Champions League officially out of the picture as a goal for the season, one thing becomes more important than anything else this season: winning the Scudetto. Napoli haven't triumphed in Serie A since the days of Maradona, and that was long ago. They've had some excellent seasons since returning to Italy's top division, but a title still eludes them.
Now, without the Champions League to pressure the squad and with their two top rivals both embroiled in tough groups, Napoli have no excuse for not going all in on their league campaign. A strong start using the extra focus and rest for the squad's primary players is an absolute must, and Napoli must build as big an advantage as they can before Roma and Juventus are eventually eliminated and can return their focus to Italy.
Without the extra boon of the Champions League, this season's rallying cry must become "Scudetto Or Bust." Anything less than winning the title will be a disappointment now. And considering what Napoli just went through thanks to finishing third last year, anything less than finishing second and securing an automatic berth in the Champions League group stage will be a failure.
Europa League: To Punt Or Not To Punt
That brings us to the last question plaguing Napoli fans right now: what should the club do about the Europa League? They'll find out who will be in their group in Europe's red-headed-step-child competition tomorrow, but does it really matter? Should the fans and the club even care about being in the Europa League? Hell, UEFA certainly doesn't care much about it, otherwise they wouldn't have had all the pomp and circumstance of the Champions League draw in the middle of Europa qualifying matches that were being played.
You know that Rafa will want to put a lot of effort in to the competition, seeing as he's a "European specialist" manager who wants to win as many continental trophies as he can. At the same time, though, you know that De Laurentiis will be utterly uninterested in the competition and will want his club's focus on the league. Frankly, ADL has the right call on this one: unless you win the Europa League to get that shiny new Champions League pass that starts this year, there's really not much of a point in the competition.
The six group matches to give Napoli one good opportunity, though: with the club sitting a little deeper at most positions, this is a good opportunity to give the second unit more playing time, especially with Napoli likely to trot out their strongest starting eleven more often in the league now. It'll also be a good chance to give minutes to the club's younger players, like defender Sebastiano Luperto.
If Napoli get a kind draw and their B team is good enough to see them through to the knockout rounds, the club can reassess how it feels about advancing further, but in the meantime, very little care should be given for the sake of the club's league standing. Europa just isn't important enough in the grand scheme of what Napoli can achieve.