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Napoli’s season unraveling as Champions League hopes slip away

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]espite Juventus’ stranglehold over the Italian game in recent years, Napoli have been one of the sides most likely to give the Serie A champions a run for their money.

Having qualified for the Champions League in the last two seasons and spending big in the summer to bring Gonzalo Higuaín to the Stadio San Paolo, hopes were high that Rafa Benítez’s men could pose a title threat this season.

Despite a sluggish start to the campaign, improved form had Napoli in the top three at the turn of the year, but a poor run of domestic form of late has seen the Partenopei slip down the table.

A 1-0 defeat to Roma on Saturday means that the San Paolo fans are unlikely to witness Champions League football again next season, with Benítez’s side dropping to sixth and now eight points adrift of third-placed Lazio.

Napoli’s recent run of form has seen them fail to win a Serie A game in their last five attempts, with disappointing defeats to Torino and Hellas Verona compounded by home draws against modest Atalanta and an underwhelming Inter.

However, despite the poor results, it has been lacklustre performances that will really infuriate the fans, with their team only scoring three goals in the last five outings and the sublime attacking players in the squad failing to live up to their billing.

With Roma low on confidence and seemingly content to sit back and soak up pressure once they took the lead after 25 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, Napoli did not possess the artistry to break the hosts down and created few gilt-edged chances.

Rafa BenítezThe Naples-based club’s potential saving grace could come in the form of cup competitions and qualification for the Champions League through the back door.

Benítez’s charges face Lazio in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final on Wednesday night, knowing that victory on home soil will be good enough to see them make the final after a 0-0 draw in the capital in the first leg.

Meanwhile, after overcoming Dinamo Moscow in the last round, a sinister-looking Wolfsburg side lie in wait for the Italians in the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

With this season’s winners of the second-tier tournament automatically going into the draw for next term’s Champions League, glory in this competition is thoroughly worth pursuing and could paper over the cracks of a disappointing domestic campaign.

Winning the Europa League will be a big ask however, but it could well be the difference between progression and wholesale changes this summer.

Benítez’s two-year tenure with the club will be deemed as a success, but it appears that the former Liverpool man may well not be at the helm next term if a late-season revival cannot be conjured.

From a playing perspective, José Callejón is being heavily linked with a move back to his homeland, while Higuaín continues to attract headlines in the British press over reported English interest.

It may well be that fresh ideas and a new face on the bench is needed to enliven the Naples club, as their Spanish coach seems distracted to some degree – perhaps due to his family still living in Liverpool.

There is no shortage of quality in the playing ranks, but for the time being Napoli’s season threatens to be completely derailed if the side’s current levels of malaise continue in forthcoming weeks.

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