Bold, brilliant, beaten: City reminds Napoli there's fun in winning

Paolo Bandini
Francesco Pecoraro / Getty Images Sport / Getty

At a certain point, it is not enough just to have fun anymore. Back in September, Lorenzo Insigne admitted to the Spanish newspaper AS that he was tired of Napoli's status as Italian football's most agreeable also-rans.

"We enjoy ourselves, even in training," he said. "But we need to win something. We are sick of hearing people say that we play well, but never win a thing. It drives me mad: this year we have to convert one of those opportunities - and we all know it."

Titles are not won in November, but they can be lost. Insigne might have begun to feel a familiar sinking feeling on Wednesday as Napoli threw away the lead he had given them at home to Manchester City. Defeat left his team's participation in this season's Champions League hanging by a thread.

On what was yet another wildly entertaining night at the Stadio San Paolo, Napoli went 1-0 up, conceded twice, pulled level again at 2-2 but then gave up a third goal just at the moment when they seemed to be in the ascendancy once more. City's fourth goal, in injury time, was cruel, but Napoli had been everything Insigne wishes they would not be: bold, brilliant, and beaten.

You could say that there is no shame in losing to Manchester City. Napoli were the first opponent to even take a lead against them since August. Pep Guardiola's side might be the best in the world right now, a frighteningly fluid collective in which every player seems to boast the touch and timing of a regista - from the forward line right through to the goalkeeper Ederson.

Cool economics dictate that Napoli should be underdogs on a night such as this. Bernardo Silva, who came off the bench for City, cost €45 million to sign from Monaco in the summer and has played only an occasional role. Napoli have never spent so much on a single player in their club's history.

And yet, the reality is that Napoli will have to beat teams richer than themselves if they are going to win any major trophy. Even in Italy, they are up against a Juventus team who outspend them on player wages by a ratio of roughly 2:1. That has not stopped Napoli from sitting top of Serie A after 11 games, with a plus-24 goal difference. Nor did it stop them from dominating the early exchanges against City.

It was not just that Napoli took the lead, but that they had held more than 60 percent of possession before doing so. To see a Guardiola team struggle to even get a toe on the ball felt rare indeed.

The problem is that both they, and Insigne have been here before. It was he who gave them an early advantage away to Real Madrid in the last-16 of the previous Champions League campaign. They wound up losing the game 3-1, and then repeated the trick in the second leg: scoring first through Dries Mertens before falling to an identical defeat.

It is that failure to build on such promising foundations that makes these defeats hard to take. There were mitigating circumstances on Wednesday, an injury to left-back Faouzi Ghoulam depriving Napoli not only of an excellent defender but also of a player who contributes so much to the attack. It was no accident that the Italians were funnelling all that early possession down the flank where both he and Insigne operate.

Ghoulam's departure, though, also highlighted Napoli’s greatest weakness: a lack of depth in key positions. Much has been written in Italy about their lack of alternatives up front, but the sight of Christian Maggio - a right wing-back whose best years are behind him - playing out of position in a back four was a reminder that the options are thin elsewhere as well.

That does not necessarily doom them to another season without silverware. There are those in Naples who have quietly been suggesting that it might benefit them to crash out of the Champions League early so that they can concentrate on Serie A - where they have dropped only two points to date.

It is also true that they are not out of Europe's top club competition yet - though the odds are stacked against them. They will need to take maximum points from their remaining two group games and hope that City field a strong enough side to win away to Shakhtar Donetsk in December - no certainty when you consider that the English club will likely have first place sewn up beforehand.

If Napoli should fail to make it through to the knockout phase, then it is their defeat in the Ukraine that will have doomed them, much more than this loss to City. They were poor on that occasion - insipid and presumptuous - a radically different proposition to what we saw here.

Whether glorious or lifeless, though, a defeat is still a defeat. This was another big European night when Insigne did what he could to change the Napoli narrative. Once again, they could not seize the opportunity that he presented.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)