x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Napoli must find a way to stop the leak

Manager Rafa Benitez’s problem in Italy and ahead of their Uefa Champions League clash with Arsenal is with the back, writes Ian Hawkey.

Rafa Benitez, left, does not need a second unhappy stint as manager of a Serie A club. Roberto Salomone / AFP
Rafa Benitez, left, does not need a second unhappy stint as manager of a Serie A club. Roberto Salomone / AFP

To survive in the Uefa Champions League beyond Wednesday night, Napoli must beat Arsenal by at least three goals. Mission impossible? Not if you consult the attacking aspects of recent form.

In their last two matches, Napoli have scored three and four times. In their last home fixture in Europe, they struck three goals.

The downside, the cause of their slip down the Serie A table and their unfavourable position in the three-way joust for a top-two slot in ferocious Group F of the Champions League?

A creaking, leaking defence.

Take the weekend visit by Udinese. It started ominously when goalkeeper Rafael, standing in for an ailing Pepe Reina, struggled to keep his eye on a back pass and almost let it cross his own goal line.

A pattern of sloppiness had been set. Twice Napoli would concede goals from corners. It finished 3-3, Napoli having blown a 2-0 lead, then a 3-2 advantage.

Haphazard defending was endemic across Serie A last weekend, but that will hardly ease the worries of Rafa Benitez, the Napoli head coach. His last clean sheet was nine matches ago.

“I am as dissatisfied about it as anybody else,” he said. “We have to cut out this series of individual errors.”

Benitez was pursued for the post of Napoli coach, and accepted it over the summer on the basis of his European expertise, as opposed to his unhappy previous experience in Seria A – six months at Inter Milan in 2010. Being obliged to contest a place in the knockouts with Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund was always going to be hard test, but there will still be scepticism about the new coach should Napoli drop into the Europa League.

That the rearguard has become so porous with captain and local favourite Paolo Cannavaro eased out of the first XI by Benitez gives Napoli fans an easy complaint.

This weekend’s return to the San Paolo of popular former boss Walter Mazzarri, now manager at Inter, may also provoke cheers for him amid derogatory noises aimed his successor.

Benitez, who has Reina available, has appealed for Napoli’s supporters to impose themselves in their unique, rousing style against Arsenal. He needs a performance reminiscent of his most famous European match, but only the second half of it.

That night in 2005, he famously coaxed three goals out of his team in a major Champions League match, where his Liverpool team rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat AC Milan on penalties.