Napoli needed a win and instead got a disaster, with Manchester City scoring three second half goals at the Stadio San Paolo in Italy en route to a 4-2 Champions League win that punched their ticket to the knockout rounds. Worse, Napoli are not just all but out of the Champions League, but they may have suffered a crucial and serious injury as well.
Things started well for Napoli, controlling possession and generating a few good scoring chances in the opening fifteen minutes, but some uncharacteristically poor touches from Dries Mertens and Marek Hamsik left them with nothing to show for it. Napoli would finally open the scoring, though, when Lorenzo Insigne finished off some beautiful combination play from Faouzi Ghoulam and Mertens in the 21st minute to send the San Paolo into rapturous celebration.
That celebration was quickly quieted, though, because of an injury to Ghoulam. He’d sustained a knock some minutes before helping set up that goal, and despite trying to run it off he was forced out of the match in the 31st minute, and early reports after halftime indicated it may be an ACL injury, potentially ending Ghoulam’s season early. One of Napoli’s most influential players so far this season, Ghoulam had been impressive in the opening spell of the match, and his absence was quickly and keenly felt.
That’s because Manchester City would equalize just three minutes later, with a set piece getting inadequately cleared, giving Ilkay Gundogan the chance to send the ball back in for Nicolas Otamendi to head home at the far post. Notably, Gundogan was in the area of the pitch that Ghoulam would typically patrol, and the man who replaced him at left back — Elseid Hysaj, who started the match on the right side and had struggled badly in the first meeting between these two teams — failed to close Gundogan down anywhere near adequately to stop the play.
That sparked off a dominant run of play from City, who at the end of the half looked the better of the two teams, with Napoli’s edge and aggression badly blunted after Ghoulam’s injury and the equalizer. The partenopei looked intimidated, and Pep Guardiola and company were only too happy to take advantage.
And take advantage they did, with a corner kick early in the second half falling to John Stones, who had cracked the crossbar with a shot in the first half. He hit the crossbar again this time, but instead of bouncing clear it caromed off the bottom of the bar and crossed the line to give Manchester City a crucial 2-1 lead.
That lead wouldn’t last, though, as the drama of the match continued to unfold just past the hour mark, when a corner for Napoli saw them earn a penalty, thanks to Leroy Sane catching Raul Albiol with a late boot as he tried to clear the ball, which German referee Felix Brych was having nothing of, immediately blowing his whistle and pointing to the penalty spot. Jorginho stepped up and slotted the ball home with ease, giving Napoli and their fans a much-needed breath of hope.
That hope was dashed just a few short minutes later, as Napoli failed to convert another corner, then left fans aghast as Leroy Sane sprinted away on a counter attack, getting all the way to the edge of the penalty area before seeing a serious challenge, then knocking the ball back for Sergio Aguero to run onto and lash past Pepe Reina unchallenged.
City would add a fourth in stoppage time thanks to Raheem Sterling, but the match was long over and won by then. The result puts Manchester City through to the Champions League knockout rounds with two matches to spare in the group, and with Shakhtar Donetsk beating Feyenoord in the group’s other match, Napoli’s own Champions League campaign is all but over in the same stroke.
Napoli: Pepe Reina; Elseid Hysaj, Raul Albiol, Kalidou Koulibaly, Faouzi Ghoulam (Christian Maggio 31’); Allan (Marko Rog 75’), Jorginho (Adam Ounas 82’), Marek Hamsik; Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne
Goals: Insigne (21’), Jorginho (pen. 62’)
Manchester City: Ederson; Danilo, John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi, Fabian Delph; Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan (David Silva 71’); Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane (Gabriel Jesus 90’); Segio Aguero (Bernardo Silva 75’)
Goals: Otamendi (34’), Stones (48’), Aguero (69’), Sterling (90’+2)
Napoli’s lack of depth hurt them
Napoli are one of the most fit teams in Italy right now, with Maurizio Sarri working continuously on their conditioning and with few injury concerns coming into the match. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not tired, because their lack of depth has meant that their players have very little rest. Contrast that to Manchester City, who can very nearly field two Champions League-level starting lineups, and who got an extra day of rest before this match on top of it, and Napoli’s thin squad was a big problem for them here.
That became starkly apparent after Faouzi Ghoulam had to leave the match, with Christian Maggio coming into the game more than two years after he ceased being good enough to play at a Champions League level and forcing normal starting right back Elseid Hysaj to play on the left, a position he’s struggled in whenever he’s manned it for Napoli. Maggio was predictably burned by Leroy Sane repeatedly, and Hysaj could do nothing to contain Raheem Sterling. It was a game-changing moment, but it wasn’t the only display that showed how Napoli’s depth hurt them.
Napoli visibly started to wear down late in the first half, with a more-frequently rotated City side staying fresh and keeping up their high pace. Add that to City being able to bring David Silva and Bernardo Silva off their bench while Napoli could only turn to Maggio, Marko Rog, and Adam Ounas, and the gulf in quality and resources was all too apparent, and all too lethal to Napoli’s hopes.
Leroy Sane is a star
In case it wasn’t made clear in the first match between Manchester City and Napoli, or in his various blindingly bright appearances this season, Sane has taken the step forward from being a very promising young player to a player actively making himself into a star. His explosive pace is one of the most obvious things about his quality, but it’s the other things Sane has learned to do since joining Manchester City that make him so damn good.
He’s figured out a sense of timing for making his runs, his high-quality passes, and other aspects of his game that many players like him struggle with, and he already has it down to such an art that Sane can make opposing players look foolish with just a beat’s wait here and an extra step of pace there. That was on display in fine form as he tortured Hysaj and Maggio all night long, with neither Napoli man able to handle Sane as he became the focal point of City’s attack.
Leroy Sane is becoming a star before our eyes, and it won’t be long before he’s regarded as one of the best attackers in Europe.
Napoli may rely too much on Faouzi Ghoulam
Napoli didn’t just take a bad blow defensively when Ghoulam went out injured, they lost out on one of their most influential attackers as well. He’s been a constant presence high up the pitch for Napoli this season, combining with Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne to create some of Napoli’s most dangerous attacks, and you could easily argue that he has been Napoli’s best player early in the season.
He was certainly Napoli’s best early in this match, and when he limped off the pitch Napoli’s attack almost immediately took a nosedive, as Elseid Hysaj wasn’t able to produce the same level of quality pushing up from left back, making Napoli’s passing approach more predictable and easier to deal with. That cost the partenopei dearly in this match, as they didn’t really seem to have a clear answer in how to adjust to attacking life without Ghoulam. Hopefully for their sake the early rumors of the Algerian left back suffering a torn ACL aren’t true, because that would be a bitter blow to their Serie A title dreams.