Napoli have a chance to grab an early stronghold on a qualifying spot in Group B of the Champions League on Wednesday when they host Benfica in a clash of sides enjoying strong early starts to their respective seasons.
The Italian team is in the Champions League for the first time since 2013-14, when its campaign ended with a third-place finish despite amassing four victories and 12 points in the six matches. The Partenopei Gli Azzurri enter this match atop the group on the strength of their 2-1 victory at 10-man Dynamo Kyiv on Sept. 13 on a pair of second-half goals by Arek Milik.
Maurizio Sarri’s side has kept rolling since that victory, posting two wins and a draw to stay on Juventus’ heels in Serie A, one point behind the reigning five-time champions. Napoli rode first-half goals by Manolo Gabbiadini and Marek Hamsik to a 2-0 victory over Chievo, extending their unbeaten streak at Stadio San Paolo in all competitions to 13 matches (11-2-0) dating to last season.
For Hamsik, it was his 100th goal with Napoli, but the star midfielder is more concerned with making sure his team keeps its positive momentum.
“There are so many games close together, so it was important to win,” Hamsik told Sky Sport after Napoli completed a four-match stretch over 11 days with three victories and a draw. “I am very happy with my achievement, it’s great for a midfielder, but what matters most is the team result.
“Right now we are doing well in the league, and we won in the Champions League; we hope to continue like this.”
Sarri has admitted thinking about the possibility of moving Hamsik further into attack, but he also wants his star midfielder to be a more consistent two-way player.
“Marek could be good in that role, but I repeat that I hope to have all the players to cover the midfield position,” the manager told Napoli’s official website. “I think after the break I can have more choices to display … it’s an idea that intrigues me.”
Napoli’s success for most of this season thus far has been riding the hot hand. First it was Jose Maria Callejon, who has five goals but only one in the last four contests. Milik followed up his brace at Kyiv with another two goals at Bologna off the bench and has a team-high six, and Hamsek and Dries Mertens have chipped in two apiece.
Milik, whom Sarri has been alternating in the starting XI with Gabbiadini, has a team-leading 11 shots on goal despite taking just 15 overall. If Mertens is ineffective, Sarri is hoping Lorenzo Insigne can break through for his first goal of the season _ Insigne has yet to tally despite a team-high 20 shots.
Despite compiling a 4-0-2 record between the sticks for Napoli in Champions League play, Pepe Reina has not recorded a shutout in the European club competition since a 1-0 victory over Hungarian side Debrecen on Nov. 24, 2009, while with Liverpool.
Benfica, considered the group favourites, were held to a 1-all draw at home by Besiktas in their Group B opener, conceding a last-gasp free kick by Talisca _ whom they loaned to the Turkish side _ in the 93rd minute. The Aguias, who lead Portugal’s Liga, have regrouped well with back-to-back victories, including a 2-0 triumph at GD Chaves on Saturday on second-half strikes by Konstantinos Mitroglou and Pizzi.
“We knew how to suffer and in the second half we had a good response and managed to score,” Pizzi told Benfica’s official website. “It was a good win … now we must continue working hard.”
While Napoli have turned Stadio San Paolo into a fortress, Benfica have served notice they are quite content in hostile venues. Saturday’s victory was a franchise record-tying 15th consecutive league road win, tying a mark established in 1972, and they are 14-3-0 since losing to Bayern Munich in the first leg of last year’s Champions League quarterifnals.
Benfica, though, have struggled to carry that domestic road success onto the rest of the continent. They are 0-1-4 in their last five trips to Italy since defeating Fiorentina in the second leg of the 1997 Cup Winners Cup quarterfinals, but the 1-0 victory wasn’t enough to overturn a deficit to advance. They are 3-1-9 all-time on Italian soil, and Napoli is 3-2-0 overall against Portuguese opponents at home.
One of the talking points for Benfica will be to see if their young players learned anything from that last-minute concession to Besiktas. The Aguias are sporting the youngest average starting XI in the Champions League at 23.09 years of age, and seven of their expected starters are 23 or younger.
The youth has shown a lack of focus at times _ all five of their goals conceded in all competitions have come in the second half. Napoli, meanwhile, have scored nine times in the final 45 minutes.
Ederson Moraes is expected to remain between the sticks after turning in a clean sheet at Chaves. He made four saves against Besiktas before conceding late, and the 22-year-old Brazil international is seeking his first career Champions League shutout.
The teams have only met twice, with Benfica advancing in the first round of the 2008 UEFA Cup with a 4-3 aggregate victory, rallying to advance with a 2-0 home victory in the second leg after Napoli recorded a 3-2 triumph.
Napoli (4-3-3): Reina, Ghoulam, Koulibaly, Albiol, Hysaj, Hamsik, Jorginho, Allan, Mertens, Milik, Callejon.
Benfica (4-4-2): Moraes, Grimaldo, Lindelof, Lopez, Semedo, Guedes, Fejsa, Horta, Salvio, Mitroglou, Pizzi.
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany)
Prediction: Napoli 2-1