On Thursday, Napoli were dealt a harsh blow to their goals for this season, being eliminated from the Europa League by Villarreal in front of the home San Paolo crowd. It was infuriating. It was humiliating. It was disappointing.
And it may have saved Napoli's season.
While Napoli have emphasized the importance of Europe's second competition over the last few years, even making the semi-finals last season, the fact remains that they were ill-suited for the competition this year. Despite their perfect and record-setting group stage run, Napoli simply do not have the depth for an extended run in the Europa League, a fact that has reared its ugly head in a big way over the last month.
Just look at the lineups Napoli have been fielding as they've rotated to play on multiple fronts over the last month. Mirko Valdifiori has been a mess at the best of times. David Lopez has been more good than bad, but when he's been bad it's been bad. Christian Maggio is a shattered shell of what he once was. Dries Mertens has been exciting at times and absent at others. Manolo Gabbiadini is so far out of form it's not even funny.
Then there's the growing fatigue running rampant through much of the team ever since the Coppa Italia match against Inter Milan. Marek Hamsik. Allan. Jose Callejon. Elseid Hysaj. Kalidou Kouliably. Faouzi Ghoulam. So many key players who are just shattered by fatigue and playing nowhere near their full potential because of it, and holding back the team's potential as a result.
"But Napoli got farther in the Europa League and Coppa Italia with a team with very similar depth last year!" you cry. And yes, that is true. But that was done though smoke and mirrors and by sacrificing Napoli's league form. Finishing behind Roma and Lazio and Fiorentina is not exactly acceptable in Naples these days, and one would imagine that Napoli fans would have traded those two semi-final berths in the cups last season in order to finish second in the league and mount a challenge to Juventus like the one they're making this year.
So now, with Napoli out of the Europa League and out of the Coppa Italia, their lack of depth becomes less of a concern. Maurizio Sarri no longer has to micromanage his squad quite as much, and can be freer with how he sets up his lineups and utilizes substitutes, not having to consider how playing in this match in the league will impact the player's ability to perform in that match on the continent. It will allow him to finally tap into the potential of parts of the squad that have gone underutilized because of Napoli's need to be prepared for a multitude of matches, and players like Mertens and Manolo Gabbiadini will surely benefit, as well as likely boons for the likes of Nathaniel Chalobah and even Alberto Grassi once he returns to health.
With Napoli staring down what will likely be a tight and intense Serie A title race, they need their players as fresh and fit as can be, something that has not been the case of late and that has heavily contributed to their dip in form. Now they can focus on just one task, just one race, and hopefully be all the better for it. They need to improve their form first, obviously, but not having to divide their attention should help that tremendously.
Being eliminated from the Europa League, especially in such brutally disappointing fashion, certainly stings. That's not a pain that will go away quickly, but if Napoli can take this and become a better team in the league because of it -- heck, we may wind up thanking Villarreal come the end of the season.