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Do Napoli and Koulibaly need Europa League success?

4:29 PM WAT 06/03/2019
Koulibaly sent off Inter Napoli
After a failed league challenge, cup specialist Carlo Ancelotti could yet have a strong opening season in Naples

At the sound of Gianluca Rocchi’s whistle to signal the end of Napoli vs. Juventus at Stadio San Paolo on Sunday night, it put to bed to any lingering hopes the home side had of stopping the Old Lady from winning an eight successive Serie A title.

A 2-1 home defeat by Massimiliano Allegri’s squad left the Naples giants on 56 points, a staggering 16 adrift of Juve, who moved to 72. Barring any sudden collapse by the 34-time champions, Scudetto number 35 is on its way to Turin.

Napoli’s defeat in front of their fans sealed what has been another failure to challenge the Juventus hegemony in Italy. They’re on pace to accrue 82 points, which is nine and four fewer than Maurizio Sarri managed in 2017-18 and 2016-17 respectively.

Even though many feel the predicted total of 82 falls below expectations following last season’s title push, it should be noted that Sarri also had the same number in his first year.

The rebuttal to that is the fact Carlo Ancelotti met a team in better shape as opposed to what his predecessor inherited from Rafael Benitez, but have Napoli been unlucky in that results this season haven’t been reflective of performances?

For his part, Kalidou Koulibaly’s level has, more or less, remained the same this term.

In fact, statistically, the towering centre-back is performing slightly better than he did last season; he’s up on interceptions per game (1.3 to 1.1) and clearances per game (3.6 to 3.2). Similarly, he’s been beaten by his man fewer times, is yet to make an error leading to a goal, and hasn't even been responsible for giving up any shots to the opposition.

His passing numbers are down this season owing to the reduced enforcement of possession football, while there were slightly more successful tackles made in the previous campaign (1.5 to 1.3).

Despite the fact the defender scored five last term and is yet to open his account for the season, there's been a fair improvement in the Senegal international this season. Moreover, defenders aren’t judged on goals scored anyway, so it’d be unfair to criticize, or pass judgment, using that metric!

Defensively, the Blues aren’t faring notably better nor worse than last term. Indeed, they look set to concede roughly 29 goals in the league like they did in 2017/18.

If anything, it’s further forward that’s likely to give Ancelotti cause for concern. His side’s profligacy has cost them dear in a glut of games this season, and their poor finishing reared its head against Juventus on Sunday.

With 10 men, they still managed expected goals of 2.06 as opposed to 0.59 from the visitors, and were generally the better side over the course of the game.

In their previous home game against Torino, Napoli had expected goals of 2.08 against the Bull’s 0.36, but it ended goalless. While the similarly goalless draw at Fiorentina in gameweek 23 saw the Partenopei trump their hosts 3.01 to 0.62.

Their inconsistency in front of goal has contributed to a disappointing league campaign that’ll likely see them score lower than they did in three years under Sarri and maybe fail to hit the 70-goal mark of Rafael Benitez’s 14/15 side.

Notwithstanding, it’s not all doom and gloom, and Koulibaly and co. may yet find comfort in this season’s Europa League. Seeing as only a monumental collapse in the league would see them end outside the Champions League positions, the logical thing could be focusing attentions to much-maligned ‘second-rate’ continental competition.

Narrow failure to secure UCL Last 16 qualification ahead of Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool led to Ancelotti’s side having to drop down to the less prestigious competition, but with the current landscape, they ought to take it seriously as it may represent their best chance of silverware.

While the Round of 16 contains the English duo of Arsenal and Chelsea, Spanish duo of Sevilla and Valencia, Portuguese giants Benfica, as well as Italian rivals Inter Milan, Napoli are the most complete side in the competition and could feasibly be considered favorites going forward.

Admittedly, nothing is set in stone in knockout competitions, but Koulibaly and his teammates can draw inspiration from the exploits of Atletico Madrid last season.

Having ended third in their Champions League group behind Roma and Chelsea, Diego Simeone’s crew, knowing full well their league standing wasn’t under threat, stamped their authority on the competition and were rewarded by lifting their third Europa League title.

There may be fears about a Jekyll and Hyde frontline thwarting their chances in the latter stages, but knockout tournaments rely on defensive solidity as importantly as attacking efficiency. Like Atletico, Napoli have the former and given cup tournaments rely more on moments as opposed to consistency, Ancelotti’s team could yet come up trumps.

For all the effusive praise sent Napoli’s way under Sarri, it’s incessantly mentioned that the current crop didn’t win any major title. As a matter of fact, one would have to go as far back as 2013/14 for their last success which came in the Coppa Italia under Benitez, before subsequently beating Juventus to the 2014 Supercoppa Italiana a few months later.

Those successes were half a decade ago and only a handful of members of that side remain in Naples – with Koulibaly still plying his trade in Belgium with Genk at the time.

In all fairness, it was always going to be a tough ask replicating last year’s league challenge of pushing Allegri’s Juve. With Napoli out of the title race this time, the Europa League represents an opportunity for the Naples heavyweights to salvage a campaign that's threatening to peter out.

The Blues’ only triumph in this competition came exactly three decades ago, when a Diego Maradona-led side secured a 5-4 aggregate success over VfB Stuttgart. 30 years later, Ancelotti has a chance to lead Koulibaly and his colleagues to European glory – and their second ever success on the continent.

No one would dare water the achievement down, either, given this crop badly need to feel that winning feeling.