Napoli worked hard to get a positive result against Villarreal in the first leg of their Europa League round of 32 tie, but they couldn't get the job done in a 1-0 loss. It was the first time they failed to win in the Europa League this season, but while the final result may have been slightly harsh, Napoli certainly hadn't earned a win on the day.
It was clear very early on in the match that Napoli weren't playing at their full efficiency. The defense was shaky, the midfield struggled to hold possession as effectively as normal, and the attack was far more static and passive than we're used to seeing from Napoli. Part of that was down to the rotation, and part of it down to Villarreal's disruptive play style, but it was also obvious that Napoli just weren't as good in this match as we've come to expect them to be.
Napoli out-shot and out-possessed their hosts on the day, but Villarreal were much more efficient and effective with their efforts in both areas. Los Amarrilos also dominated their own final third, with Matteo Musacchio and Victor Ruiz keeping Manolo Gabbiadini and later Gonzalo Higuain almost completely locked down. It was an impressive showing from an underrated back line, but Napoli fans couldn't really enjoy it while watching their attack try and fail to get one over on them time and again.
While there were numerous issues for Napoli, they didn't play particularly poorly on the day, they just lacked their typical sharpness and ruthlessness. The exception, however, was Mirko Valdifiori, pressed into service at the base of Napoli's midfield thanks to Jorginho's illness. He was sloppy and wasteful in possession, and ineffective off the ball, both in terms of supporting his team's attack and shielding his back line when Villarreal had possession. It was arguably his worst performance for Napoli this season, which considering how poor he was at the start of the season is really saying something.
It should also be pointed out that Maurizio Sarri again waited too long to make his substitutions. When Napoli were slowly starting to build some momentum and knock Villarreal off balance a bit, bringing on Higuain or Lorenzo Insigne could have helped make the difference Napoli needed to punch a hole in the Spaniards' gameplan.
Instead, Sarri waited. And waited. And waited. Napoli's momentum fizzled out long before Higuain finally replaced the ineffective Gabbiadini almost 70 minutes into the game -- and at least 12 minutes after he should have pulled the trigger -- and it certainly hadn't come back by the time Insigne replaced Jose Callejon six minutes later. It took Napoli trailing thanks to Denis Suarez' audacious free kick for Allan to be brought on, and by then it was simply too late. Substitutions coming too late was a major point of frustration under Rafa Benitez, and it's slowly starting to become one with Sarri as well.
This match also marks the first time in 11 months that Napoli have been held scoreless in two consecutive matches, something that will concern Napoli fans greatly. With their high-octane attack that's not a mark that will last much longer, but the next goal scored by the partenopei will bring with it a gigantic sigh of relief.
Thankfully, there's still plenty of reason for confidence in the second leg of the tie. Napoli only trail by a single goal, and on a whole the comparative performance of the two teams probably earned a draw. The San Paolo has been a much kinder venue to Napoli in the Europa League this season than their road trips have been, so with a better gameplan and the home faithful behind them, there's every reason to think that Napoli can turn this tie around.
But first, it's time to get ready for Monday's visit from AC Milan. On to the next.
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Chiriches, Koulibaly, Strinic; Lopez (Allan 83'), Valdifiori, Hamsik; Callejon (Insigne 73'), Gabbiadini (Higuain 67'), Mertens
Villarreal: Areola; Mario, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Dos Santos (Castillejo 36'), Trigueros (Pina 73'), Bruno, Suarez; Baptistao (Bakambu 61'), Soldado
Goal: Suarez (82')