Less than three years ago, Napoli made one of the toughest exits in the history of Champions League play in the group stages. At Sao Paolo Stadium on Wednesday, the Neopolitans have a chance to make history by becoming the first team to reach the knockout round with three matches to spare as they host Besiktas.
In 2013, Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal all took turns beating up on each other while beating up on Marseille in group play. All three teams amassed 12 points, but the Italian side was relegated to the Europa League as it lost out on the slimmest of goal differences.
This time around, Napoli (2-0-0) are in the catbird seat through their first two matches following wins over Dynamo Kyiv and Benfica. A win in this match coupled with those two teams splitting points would make the Partenopei the first team in Champions League history to secure a spot in the round of 16 after only three matches played.
But first, Napoli must find their scoring touch without injured striker Arek Milik, who suffered a knee injury while playing for Poland in World Cup qualifying. They lost matches on either side of the international break and dropped to third in Serie A following a 3-1 loss at home to AS Roma on Saturday. Kalidou Koulibaly tried to spark a rally with a goal in the 58th minute, but Napoli failed to deliver an equaliser before Mohamed Salah’s goal with five minutes remaining condemned them to defeat.
“At the beginning we took possession and we were attacking with pressure, maybe we could have been more determined in the (penalty) area, however, we did not deserve to lose,” Lorenzo Insigne told Napoli’s official website. “Now we have to look ahead. We should not find excuses and we want to redeem ourselves as soon as possible starting from the next match on Wednesday in Champions League.”
It was just the second home loss in 30 matches (24-4-2) across all competitions for the Neopolitans, who are a daunting 7-2-0 all-time at home in Champions League play while outscoring opponents 20-9. They cruised by Benfica 4-2 on Sept. 28 as Dries Mertens had a brace and Milik contributed a goal and an assist.
Coach Maurizio Sazzi could have defender Raul Alibol available for this match after the defender missed the last two contests with a thigh injury. Additionally, Vlad Chiriches – sidelined since September with a knee injury – has also returned to full training with the squad.
Influential midfielder Jose Callejon has not scored in his last five matches in all competitions, but did have a team-high four shots in Saturday’s loss to Roma. The Spain international has five goals in all contests, trailing only Milik’s seven.
The match will also serve as a milestone for veteran goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who will become just the ninth player to make 150 appearances in UEFA competitions. Reina has also represented Barcelona, Villarreal and Liverpool.
Besiktas (0-2-0) are second in the group and have a chance to distance themselves from Kyiv and Benfica if they can get results in each of their next two matchdays since they will again face Napoli at home Nov. 1. In domestic play, the Turkish side is 5-2-0 and in second on goal difference to Istanbul but ahead of archrivals Galatasaray while enjoying its best start to a Super Lig season since also accumulating 17 points through the first seven matches of 2008-09.
The Black Eagles recorded 1-0 victories around the international break and defeated Kayserispor on Saturday. Omer Sismanoglu scored in the 67th minute, five minutes shortly after his introduction as a substitution by manager Senol Gunes wound up netting the match-winner for the second straight domestic contest.
“Despite playing against an aggressive team, we stuck to our game plan and created a lot of scoring opportunities,” Gunes said. “If you count the number of chances in the first half, we should’ve taken the lead much earlier. However, since this was a tough away fixture, I am satisfied with the result.”
This match will be a homecoming for veteran midfielder Gokhan Inler, who played for Napoli from 2011-15 and helped them rise to an elite European squad. The Switzerland international is still getting acclimated to Besiktas – he’s made four starts and appeared in five matches overall – and is eager to make his return to Italy.
“It’s going to be a great feeling as I spent four years there and improved a lot,” Inler told UEFA’s official website. “Before I went to Napoli I’d been to the Sao Paolo and scored against them (for Udinese in a 2-1 away win in 2011). Now coming back is an even greater feeling, and I’m looking forward to the two matches against them. It’s going to be nice to see my friends again and play against them.
Inler’s biggest goal in the Champions League with Napoli came against Villarreal, helping the Italian side reach the knockout round in 2011-12.
Inler, though, may be an exception given the lack of success his team has had against sides from Italy. Besiktas has a brutal record against such teams, taking just two draws from 11 all-time matches while being outscored 24-6. The only time Besiktas returned to Turkey from Italy with a point was after a scoreless draw at Lazio in Champions League group play in 2003.
Napoli swept by Trabzonspor in the round of 32 in the 2015 Europa League, winning both matches by a 5-0 aggregate in their only contests against Turkish teams. This is also the first all-time meeting between the teams.
Sergei Karasev of Russia has been selected to referee this contest, and it will be his first Champions League assignment of the season.
Probable Lineups: Napoli (4-3-3): Reina, Ghoulam, Koulibaly, Maksimovic, Hysaj, Hamsik, Jorginho, Allan, Insigne, Mertens, Callejon. Besiktas (4-1-3-2): Fabri, Erkin, Tosic, Marcelo, Beck, Uysal, Arslan, Inler, Hutchinson, Quaresma, Aboubakar.
Prediction: Napoli 1-0.