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Luciano Spalletti’s side have arguably underachieved in the Europa League so far this season, but they should get the job done in front of their own supporters.
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The 2020/21 campaign was not a particularly noteworthy one for Napoli, if you put the pandemic to one side. A team managed by Gennaro Gattuso finished fifth in Serie A, missing out on the Champions League qualification places by just one point. Their European exploits were equally unremarkable: Napoli made it beyond the Europa League group stage before being eliminated by Granada in the round of 32.
Luciano Spalletti replaced Gattuso as manager in the summer, as Napoli sought to get back into the Champions League. They might do more than that. We are not yet at the midway point of the campaign and no prizes are handed out in December, but Napoli look like potential title contenders in Serie A. They have the strongest defense in the league and are scoring plenty of goals to boot, with Spalletti demonstrating that he is still one of the smartest Italian coaches around after taking two years out of the game following his departure from Inter in 2019.
Napoli have been consistently good in the Italian top flight, but that reliability has eluded them in the Europa League to date. Despite their lofty position in the Serie A standings, the Partenopei are only third in Group C heading into the final matchday. They have won just two of their five games and lost both encounters with Sparta Moscow to widespread surprise. Only a win against Leicester will do on Thursday.
In the reverse fixture on matchday one, Napoli came from two goals down to draw 2-2 at the King Power Stadium. They have arguably been unfortunate since then: the expected goals numbers have them as the joint-best defense and the best attack in Group C. Yet there is still work to do for Spalletti’s side if they are to finish in the top two.
Leicester are in a slightly better position as they prepare to travel to the Stadio Armando Diego Maradona. A return of eight points from a possible 15 is enough to have the Foxes at the top of the table with one round of fixtures still to play. A draw in Naples will be enough for Brendan Rodgers’s side to advance to the knockout stage (although a second-place finish would send them through to the preliminary knockout in the revamped Europa League format).
While Napoli have been consistent in Serie A this term, Leicester have been anything but in the Premier League. After coming so close to a top-four finish in 2019/20 and 2020/21, the Foxes are unlikely to challenge the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur for that final Champions League spot this time round.
The Europa League provides another route into Europe’s principal competition, as well as offering a piece of silverware in its own right. Having taken seven points from the last nine
One factor in Leicester’s favor is the growing injury crisis at Napoli. Spalletti will be without Kalidou Koulibaly, Victor Osimhen and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa for this crunch clash, while Fabian Ruiz might also miss out. Napoli do not have the strength in depth of some of Europe’s top teams, so the guaranteed absence of the aforementioned trio is a major blow.
As for Leicester, it is hard to know which version will show up. At their best this season they have produced bright, incisive attacking soccer while keeping things reasonably tight at the back. For instance their performance in the 4-2 victory over Manchester United was fantastic.
Yet too often their efforts have been undermined by defensive sloppiness, both individual and collective. And although Osimhen is a big loss for Napoli, there is still ample firepower in a team which will feature Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Hirving Lozano up top.
The fact Leicester only need a tie acts as an insurance policy, but Napoli may actually benefit from their task being crystal clear. In front of a raucous home crowd at the Stadio Armando Diego Maradona, they will pose serious questions of Leicester’s shaky backline. Go for a Napoli win in this one.
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|Napoli vs Leicester City Information
|Napoli vs Leicester City
|Stadio Armando Diego Maradona, Naples, Italy
|Thursday, 9 December 2021, 15.00 PM EDT
|How to watch
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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