It’s been a tough road for Napoli of late, with a lot more frustration than joy to be had. But now with two huge matches coming up, against Inter Milan on Friday and then at Benfica on Tuesday, they face a week that will not only determine their future in the Champions League, but could define their entire season. A pair of victories would be absolutely massive for the partenopei, giving them massive positive momentum at a time when they desperately need it — but failure in these two matches could pull the bottom out of the season before it’s even halfway through.
Adding to the pressure is that Dries Mertens is out of the game against Inter after picking up his fifth yellow card when he came on during the draw with Sassuolo, so a weakened front line just got a hell of a lot weaker. Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon will have to add some more minutes onto their already tiring legs ahead of the visit to Portugal for the crunch Champions League tie with Benfica.
They will almost certainly be supporting Manolo Gabbiadini again, who continued to cut a forlorn figure leading the line against Sassuolo. Gabbiadini kept plugging away in the match with the Neroverdi, makign a number of runs that were rarely picked out, his teammates preferring to shoot on sight than to make the pass to him after weeks of seeing that turn out uselessly. It was another frustrating night which even saw Gabbiadini get hit on the back of the head by a Marek Hamsik shot — which pretty well summed up the striker’s season so far.
Emmanuele Giaccherini and Omar El Kaddouri are the only other attacking options that we have seen getting any minutes on the pitch so far, but neither is a striker. Marko Rog and Roberto Insigne will probably remain on the bench unless by some miracle the lack of both Milik and Mertens forces Coach Maurizio Sarri to invent a new attacking strategy, something that many fans would welcome at this point.
Inter should be fired up for this game after finally getting a first win under new coach Stefano Pioli even though they made hard work against 10 man Fiorentina. Napoli struggled last season against the Nerazzurri’s physicality and should expect another bruising encounter. Then there’s the massive pressure of their match against Benfica, a match that Napoli must win if they want to guarantee that they advance to the Champions League knockout rounds this spring. They can advance with a draw, but only if they get some help from Dynamo Kyiv, who would need at least a point at home against Besiktas to keep the Turkish team from passing Napoli in the group standings.
Suffice it to say that Sarri has, or should have, a lot of headaches and sleepless nights ahead of him preparing for these two massive games. There are a lot of major problems in Napoli’s play and players, and a lot of that seems to be squarely on him.
Too many major contributors are playing at a lower level than they were last season, there seems to be a lack of drive and determination, and there seems to be an air of resignation at times of having no real winning season objectives. They are just going through the motions and the coach is not helping matters by not helping his team to succeed, playing the same players every game in the same formation that is not working and only bringing on the same subs at the same minute has become tiring and predictable.
Both Napoli and the fans need answers to these questions — after all, the team can’t have just given up after one injury. Hard work and some fight works for smaller clubs, but it’s time for Napoli to get back to basics, basics like not over complicating corners and free kicks like they so often have this year. So far Sarri’s only noticeable response to his team struggling to score in open play has been inventing new and improved ways of how to waste 15-20 corners a game, or throwing on Giaccherini for the last five minutes for whoever his most effective attacker has been.
With so much on the line in the coming days, matches that could make or break Napoli’s campaign, there is no time to waste, no room for error, no where to go should they fail. Napoli must define themselves in this next week — and for the sake of all of us fans, let’s hope they define themselves as winners and contenders.