As the group phase reaches its climax, qualification from Europa League Group C is in the balance on Thursday night, when Napoli host Leicester City at Stadio Maradona.
While the Foxes will finish first if they win or both games are drawn, they could even progress with a loss. Meanwhile, the Serie A side must take three points to ensure a place in the knockout stage.
Just two points separate first to last in Group C, with Napoli trailing their final matchday visitors by a single point ahead of the last 90 minutes of action. Therefore, the Partenopei may yet be reliant on the result in Warsaw, where Legia take on Spartak Moscow at the same time as their clash with Leicester.
For certain, Napoli will finish first if they win and Spartak do not. That is particularly important this year, as the eight runners-up from the Europa League group stage will have to feature in playoffs against the eight third-placed teams from the Champions League next February.
The stakes are high, then, as Luciano Spalletti’s men welcome their English counterparts to the Maradona, where a superb home record over recent months was dented by Atalanta on Sunday, when the free-scoring visitors left with all three points.
As Spalletti sent out an improvised lineup decimated by injuries to integral players, Napoli did well to push the Bergamaschi all the way, but ultimately succumbed to a 3-2 defeat, after Merih Demiral and Remo Freuler struck within five minutes of each other midway through the second half.
However, the Neapolitan outfit have now picked up just four points from their last four league games, following a previously unbeaten start. Indeed, they have even been toppled from the summit of Serie A and are now looking up at the Milan clubs above.
During this first dip in their 2021-22 campaign, Napoli also suffered a 2-1 defeat away to Spartak last time out in Europe, which meant the Russian side completed the double over them; leaving their chances of progress perilously placed.
One of their seven points gained so far in Group C came on the opening night, when a Victor Osimhen-inspired comeback helped the Azzurri salvage a 2-2 draw with this week’s opponents. A repeat result will not be enough to preserve their record of never failing to qualify from a Europa League group, though – having made it five from five last season – so only a win will do.
While Napoli’s task is crystal clear, Leicester may be content to take things more cautiously, as even a draw should see them through. Nevertheless, avoiding an additional two-legged tie against one of the Champions League dropouts should be a big enough prize for the Foxes to go for maximum points in Naples.
Leicester moved from the bottom of the section to the top by beating Legia 3-1 at home last month, thanks to goals from James Maddison, Wilfred Ndidi and Europa League specialist Patson Daka, but remain just two points clear of the fourth-placed Polish champions.
For that reason, the East Midlands side would drop to third if Legia lose and they fail in Italy, so Brendan Rodgers will expect a significant improvement on the showings which saw them collect just a point from two Premier League fixtures during the past week.
A comeback was required to hold Southampton to a draw last Wednesday, before their 2-1 defeat at Aston Villa at the weekend dropped them down to 11th in the domestic standings.
Having picked up only one point from their first two Europa League matches, last season’s FA Cup winners may have recovered to take their interest in the competition to the final group game, but their struggle for consistency goes on – giving Rodgers serious cause for concern before they take to the field in Campania.
Following Sunday’s capitulation at Villa Park, Leicester are now without a clean sheet in 15 Premier League away games, and a total of four goals conceded in their two continental trips so far this term also offers hope to even an injury-hit Napoli side.
Napoli Europa League form:
Napoli form (all competitions):
Leicester City Europa League form:
Leicester City form (all competitions):
We say: Napoli 2-2 Leicester City
While Napoli’s need is greater, that may play into the hands of Leicester, who can afford to strike on the counter using their abundant guile and pace.
The sheer volume of key men missing for the Partenopei may not be surmountable, and taking just a point from a potentially wide-open encounter would see them slide into the Conference League knockout round for finishing third.