NAPLES, Italy — If Napoli is going to win its first Serie A title in nearly three decades, the southern club is going to have to overcome two significant weaknesses.
Napoli’s fragile bench and vulnerability in the air were both exposed in a 4-2 loss to Manchester City in the Champions League on Wednesday.
After dominating the opening half hour like no other club has against the Premier League leaders this season, Napoli quickly fell apart when left back Faouzi Ghoulam limped off with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Without a left back replacement, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri put on 35-year-old substitute Christian Maggio on the right and moved Elseid Hysaj to the left.
Ghoulam’s runs had been instrumental leading up to Lorenzo Insigne’s opener for Napoli. Immediately after his departure, City wingers Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane started to impose themselves on the flanks.
Headers from City center backs Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones — who also headed off the crossbar — tilted the match in the visitors’ favor, and even a temporary equalizer via a penalty from Jorginho didn’t provide much relief.
The sudden change in fortunes recalled Napoli’s 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in the second leg of last season’s Round of 16, when two headers in six minutes from center back Sergio Ramos overturned an early Napoli advantage.
Sassuolo striker Diego Falcinelli also scored with a header for a temporary equalizer in Napoli’s 3-1 win on Sunday.
“We know that’s a weakness. We need to work on it,” Sarri said. “But we also need to realize who we are. Our physical stature enables us to be creative and skillful.”
Center backs Raul Albiol and Kalidou Koulibaly are Napoli’s only tall and physically imposing players.
Diminutive forwards Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens run circles around defenders but don’t have much to contribute when defending dead ball situations.
With Koulibaly picking up a late yellow card that will rule him out of Napoli’s next Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk, headers will be even more of a concern.
“We need to be more attentive and play with more guile,” Napoli captain Marek Hamsik said.
Napoli had an aerial threat in Arkadiusz Milik but the Poland center forward went down in September with his second long-term injury in two seasons. Milik’s absence means that Sarri has no replacement for Mertens, who is used as a “false 9.”
When the transfer market reopens in January, Napoli will likely call in center forward Roberto Inglese, who is on loan at Chievo Verona.
While Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has been reluctant to spend money on new players — preferring a more old-fashioned approach by renewing contracts — and Sarri has been slow to incorporate new arrivals into the lineup, it will be interesting to see if the team picks up a couple acquisitions.
After all, Napoli holds a two-point lead over Inter Milan at the top of Serie A and this season presents a great opportunity to grab its first Serie A title since Diego Maradona led the club to its only two championships in 1987 and 1990.
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