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Napoli back in Champions League contention ahead of Chelsea showdown

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By Luca Cetta

Tuesday 21 February 2012

After knocking out Manchester City and qualifying from their Champions League group, Napoli forced Europe to sit up and take notice. A season after an exhilarating campaign which had Italy buzzing, Europe discovered the hype.

Not accustomed to the additional fixtures, Napoli struggled with squad rotation and fatigue in matches dotted around their European adventure. They won two out of six prior and two from five after Champions League matches (the clash against Juventus being postponed following the trip to Munich). The club themselves thought it an issue, as President Aurelio De Laurentiis stormed out of the Serie A fixture announcement in August.

With qualification assured, Napoli had most of December, plus January and over half of February to be concerned solely with domestic matters. Despite losing Ezequiel Lavezzi to injury in late December, Napoli ended 2011 and started 2012 with a bang – thrashing Genoa 6-1 and triumphing 3-1 in Palermo.

Yet, that Palermo win was followed up by a five-match winless streak. Conceivably, Europe was both a dream and a hindrance, as Edinson Cavani noted after the 3-0 win at Fiorentina on Friday: “The first thing that comes to mind after this great performance is that we can finally think about the match against Chelsea, which we have been waiting for forever.”

During this run, Napoli was outfoxed and the consequence was a frustrating series of results, especially against lower-half clubs such as Bologna, Cesena and Siena. Their style was counteracted and in that case Napoli relies on the front three to inspire. Lavezzi is just now back to full match fitness, while Cavani and Marek Hamsik found goals hard to come by.

Wins over Chievo and the Viola has reinvigorated Napoli’s seemingly faltering push for third spot. From seventh, successive wins and a helping hand from stuttering rivals Udinese, Lazio, Roma and Inter has put them back in the hunt.

Aside from Lavezzi’s return to fitness and form - exemplified on Friday by a fine performance topped off by a late solo effort - others are hitting top gear. Edinson Cavani is crucially back amongst the goals. He netted from the penalty spot against Chievo and scored a brace in Florence.

Another key introduction was Miguel Britos. The imposing Uruguayan defender was signed in the summer but saw no action until recently due to injury. Both strong in the air and adept at closely marking his opponent, another feature is his ability to read and anticipate the play, which allows for a high number of interceptions. Using his small season sample (four league matches) Britos has averaged 5.3 interceptions per game, more than Salvatore Aronica’s second-best 3.5, while his ten clearances per match is also a club high.

Perhaps peaking at the right time, the next month includes direct showdowns versus Inter and Udinese, plus equally important provincial tests with Parma and Cagliari. Before that however, Napoli’s European adventure continues against Chelsea. Walter Mazzarri will be amongst the packed Stadio San Paolo crowd as he is currently serving a touchline ban.

While Napoli are rediscovering their mojo, fans at Stamford Bridge are disillusioned. A 1-1 draw in the FA Cup versus Birmingham piled more pressure on Andre Villas-Boas. Chelsea will likely sit-back – akin to their clash at Valencia in the group stage - and insist Napoli force the play, which is not their natural tactical inclination. Napoli cannot afford to concede an away goal and after four consecutive clean sheets, their defence is growing stronger.

Like their defence, Napoli’s domestic form is on the rise at a crucial time. There is still the opportunity to lift the Coppa Italia, plus they want to return to the Champions League next term. And while not likely to go all the way, Napoli are not about to lie down in Europe. They want that dream to continue as long as possible.

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