Europa League Preview – Napoli v Salzburg: “Time to Find the Clutch”

This is the biggest day of the season. This is the biggest game of the season. This is the biggest test of the Ancelotti era so far. So… instead of sitting at home biting my nails, I thought I’d dust off my Napoli writing hat and put together some thoughts ahead of tonight’s game.

Time to Find the Clutch.

I hope tonight puts a marker in the ground in terms of mentality. It’s been an odd season so far in this respect: we’ve played some incredible football in patches, we’ve seemed resilient in patches and our players have shown some incredible form in patches but… it’s all been in patches. Insigne started the season on fire – doing his best Roberto Baggio impression but this flame has burnt out. Milik seems back to his best but there was quite a barren patch beforehand – even Koulibaly and Allan had a couple of not-quite-as-brilliant-as-they-can-be matches back in December.

These dips have often coincided with our biggest games of the season. Our final CL match against Liverpool saw all of our senior players go missing, we looked nervy in the first half last weekend and Milik tied his boots up back to front when we had the chance to close the gap on Juve against Torino and Milan.

Tonight we have the chance to show that there isn’t a mentality problem at the club – a big part of the Ancelotti sell, for me, was for him to change the ‘losing the Scudetto in a hotel room’ ethos. So far, the jury is out on whether he has made a big difference here – this could change tonight.

Reigniting the Season

There’s a curious apathy growing in Naples towards the club. Attendances have been very low in the stadium and there seems to be a plethora of reasons for this. The clearest for me is that we aren’t competing for silverware to the same extent as last season. A big performance tonight can change that. There have been banners referring back to the UEFA Cup win of 1989 which illustrate that the ultras are engaged with the competition. Going deep in this competition can also help breed a winning mentality for a Scudetto push next season and, for all those tifosi that want a squad refresh a Cup win would perhaps give the likes of Albiol, Callejon and Mertens more reason to leave the club in the summer with a sense of ‘mission accomplished’.

A Very Tough Opponent

This match is huge for many reasons but one key factor behind my nerves is the fact that we are facing, arguably, the form team in the competition. Salzburg score a lot of goals – partly down to their prolific Israeli forward, Munas Dubbar (18 goals this season) but also the creativity of midfield playmaker Hannes Wolf. They are also a domestic winning machine, currently 11 points clear at the top of the Austrian league and, in Marco Rose, have one of the most sought after coaches in Europe. The meeting of tactical minds should be great fun to see.

Reasons to be Cheerful

First of all, we have K2 and K2 is at his best against teams that relay on a focal point for goals – Dubbar is that person for the Austrians and our world class centre back should do his typical shutting down job here. Zielinski seems freed by Hamsik’s exit and is revelling as the midfield go-to-guy – cynics out there will say this spike in form is down to his contract negotiations, but whatever has got him playing this way is fine by me – if he can dominate the spaces in midfield, things could happen for us

Talking of making things happen I’d love to see Adam Ounas given a start – his directness, pace, enthusiasm and flair give us something we don’t have in other areas and, with there being doubt behind Salzburg’s centre back Pongracic – he could do some damage for us.

Finally, some goals from Dries and Milik would go down a treat. Arek can’t seem to find the net on European nights and our Ciro has been playing much better recently but hasn’t found the goal he deserves. Unlike many tifosi out there, I don’t think our Belgian magician is finished – I think he just needs a few goals to go on a run.

Prediction

Napoli 2-0 Salzburg – Carlo’s ragazzi to shut down the attacking threat and step up to the plate to put the tie in the bag ahead of the tricky away fixture.


By Frank Sidekick

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