It wasn’t a good showing for Napoli as they made their return to the Champions League group stage, losing 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. Arkadiusz Milik scored a penalty, but otherwise Napoli put in an extremely lackluster performance in this match, and questions will need to be answered because of it.
Maurizio Sarri rotated the squad relatively heavily, as he’s wont to do, especially with the team looking a little fatigued this past weekend against Bologna. But that rotation came at the cost of the steady presence of Dries Mertens and Jorginho, with Arkadiusz Milik and Amadou Diawara playing deputy, respectively.
Unfortunately, both players continue their slow starts to the campaign. Diawara struggled to provide the same reliable possession and passing range that Jorginho does, and with the team struggling for effective possession in the final third, Milik was often left isolated up top. Where Mertens would have dropped back to help link play and redirect the attack, Milik’s limitations in that area left Napoli unable to adjust to Shakhtar’s packed-in defense.
Just look at this passing map for a feeling of how things went for Napoli on Wednesday:
When Dries Mertens isn't starting? #napoli pic.twitter.com/14VWvRjvlZ— Kristof Terreur (@HLNinEngeland) September 13, 2017
While Terreur being quick to blame the lack of Mertens makes sense from his perspective — as a journalist, his focus is on the Belgium national team — the bigger issue was the lack of Jorginho. Diawara really struggled to fill his role in this match, showing a lack of sharpness well beyond what we typically saw from the youngster last season.
Of course, Shakhtar weren’t just defending, and their potent counter attack caught Napoli out several times. Two of those times proved deadly for Napoli’s chances, with Taison scoring in the first half and Facundo Ferreyra in the second half, both times with Napoli’s defense looking poor in their efforts to contain them, and with Pepe Reina making a particularly egregious error on Ferreyra’s goal that is drawing marked criticism.
Napoli actually responded fairly well to the second goal — we saw a rare shape change when Mertens came on for a slowing and clearly still injured Marek Hamsik that seemed to unlock a few things for Napoli’s attack — and a penalty created by a run from Mertens ended with a cool finish from Milik to bring Napoli to within a goal.
But a second, equalizing goal never came, despite some fairly fierce efforts from the partenopei. Mertens, Insigne, and Callejon did their best to make something happen, but they just didn’t get the space to work with and their midfield didn’t get the kind of possession needed for Napoli to play their game, and Napoli lost because of it.
And you know what? Full credit to Shakhtar for figuring out what they needed to do in order to disrupt Napoli, especially with the side rotated the way it was. But Napoli still needed to be better and they failed to play up to their capability, and that’s just not acceptable.
Hopefully — hopefully — Napoli will be able to learn the lessons they can from this match about needing to adapt and keep playing at their best level. This team still needs to improve, because results like this are simply not acceptable.
On to the next.