First it began with hope which quickly changed to optimism, then came anxiety before absolute delirium, and at the end, pure relief. Not only does that describe Napoli’s crunch game away at Villarreal on Wednesday night, it could be used to assess the Vesuviani’s journey through the Champions League group stage as a whole.
Largely dismissed by sections of the British media until the deserved 2-1 victory over Manchester City an on electric November night at the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli have thrived on the underdog tag but have had to fight to earn the respect they perhaps should have been afforded from the outset. After all, the front three of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik are known to be on the shopping lists of much wealthier and prestigious clubs than Napoli, and as a unit, the attacking trio are arguably bettered by only that of Barcelona, Real Madrid and the Uruguay national team.
It was fitting that Napoli’s group stage started and ended with goals from two of those three; Cavani’s cool finish at the Etihad Stadium back in September and Hamsik’s untidy stab (from Lavezzi’s corner) at El Madrigal. Despite this, it was Swiss midfielder Gokhan Inler who effectively sealed Napoli’s progression with a priceless first goal for the club, a sweetly-struck, arrowing finish into the bottom corner of the Villarreal net.
Prior to that goal just after the hour-mark though, Napoli were visibly nervous, in an uncharacteristic performance littered with individual errors and poor decision making all over the pitch. Up against a winless Villarreal side, the Vesuviani started well, but as half time came it looked as if the occasion could get the better of them, especially with the news that Manchester City were leading against Bayern. Credit to the Partenopei, however, they kept coming, and the considerable pressure exerted on the Yellow Submarine in the second half resulted in the 2-0 win and a last 16 spot, joining fellow-peninsula qualifiers Milan and Inter.
Going forward, Napoli can be confident having exorcised a couple of demons too, notably a first clean sheet away in Europe since playing Skonto Riga in 1994 and becoming the first Italian side to win at El Madrigal. Potential opponents will sit up and take note as well; Napoli were the most clinical side in front of goal in the Champions League group stage, scoring with 22% of their shots on goal.
The Neopolitans concentration on Serie A may have gone out the window during their dabble with Europe’s premier competition for the first time in 21 years, but Walter Mazzarri would argue it has all been worth it after Wednesday night. Mazzarri’s men now have a clear two month window to pull back as many points on their league rivals as possible before the exciting European adventure resumes in February, and to try and ensure there isn’t another two decade wait to play the continent’s best.
How long into the new year Napoli’s journey will continue amongst Europe’s elite is likely to be determined by the draw in Nyon on Friday. For now though, let them dream, and maybe, just maybe, a quarter final and beyond is possible. As Napoli have already proved, you just never know.