'Mission accomplished' as Napoli nears Europa League exit
By ANDREW DAMPF
Feb. 16, 2018
ROME (AP) — "Mission accomplished," read the headline in the Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday.
It perfectly captured the sentiment surrounding Serie A team Napoli's 3-1 loss to visiting Leipzig in the first leg of the Europa League's last 32.
It's a matchup that the Serie A leader is showing no interest in winning.
On course for its first Italian league title in nearly three decades, Napoli is making it abundantly clear that it would prefer to be eliminated from Europe's second-tier competition and dedicate all of its energy to Serie A.
"This squad is still behind in terms of maturity, because it's not able to compete in all of the competitions with the same spirit," coach Maurizio Sarri said after Thursday's match. "I've noticed it since the start of the season and now it's been confirmed.
"When we don't have our heads into it we become a below average squad. I just hope this loss doesn't create moral repercussions," Sarri said. "Clearly the top objective is the league, but in Europe we've got to understand that you need to play at a certain level to avoid an embarrassment."
When Leipzig waltzed through Napoli's porous defense and Timo Werner scored his second goal of the match in stoppage time, Napoli's chances of overturning the deficit in the second leg virtually evaporated.
Facing a squad that sits second in the German Bundesliga, Napoli conceded 21 shots, the most this season in all competitions.
"It's too bad about the third goal conceded," Napoli captain Marek Hamsik said. "Winning 3-0 away from home won't be easy."
In Serie A, Napoli holds a one-point lead over six-time defending champion Juventus, which is facing its own troubles in Europe following a 2-2 draw with Tottenham in the Champions League.
While Napoli has been defeated only once — to Juventus — in 24 Serie A matches this season, it has lost more times (five) than won (four) in Europe, including two wins over Nice in August to qualify for the Champions League.
Napoli dropped down to the Europa League after finishing third in its Champions League group behind Manchester City and Shakhtar Donetsk.
"In Italy we're competitive and we do incredible things," Hamsik said. "We ought to be able to do the same in the Champions League and Europa League."
But Napoli's intentions were evident as soon as Sarri announced that he was changing half of his lineup against Leipzig.
Dries Mertens, nursing a turned ankle, was rested, fellow striker Lorenzo Insigne only came on in the second half, and reliable defender Raul Albiol remained on the bench.
"The Europa League is a competition that's borderline madness," Sarri said the day before the game. "We play at 9 p.m. Thursday, then we return to the pitch 60 hours later (for Sunday's match against relegation-threatened Spal).
For a squad with a thin bench like Napoli, the schedule is a major challenge. That's even if it's the only other competition that Napoli is alive in, having been eliminated from the Italian Cup by Atalanta.
"It's ridiculous," Sarri said. "And the (Italian) league isn't helping us."
So Sarri is taking matters into his own hands with his league focus.
With 14 rounds still to go in Serie A, only time will tell if the gamble pays off.
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