Champions League Play-Off : Napoli v Nice
Nice, after a fine start to their competitive campaign in defeating Ajax, are now faced with an even more difficult task against Italian giants Napoli. No one had given Les Aiglons much of a chance against the Dutch side, but that was before Nice had lost twice in the league, and in rather embarrassing fashion to a less-than-potent Saint-Étienne and again on Friday to promoted Troyes. Nice had their chances in that second match, to be sure, but bigger questions remain over the club’s ability to cope with the departures of Valentin Eysseric and Dalbert. Neither had caught the eye as the likes of Ricardo Pereira or Younés Belhanda, the team’s nominally more important departures, but their moving on leaves Nice with those positions poorly staffed.
Malang Sarr had impressed on the left of a back three last season, but he is in no way close to being the equal of the Brazilian as an orthodox left back, lacking the pace and crossing ability of the older player. Similarly, Eysseric’s move will see another start for Pierre Lees-Melou, who was decent creatively with Dijon last season, but has been underwhelming since making the move south, arguably being the team’s worst player against Ajax. On the opposite flank, the electric Allan Saint-Maximin, signed from Monaco and fairly impressive at the weekend, could do much to trouble Napoli, especially against the veteran Christian Maggio.
Overall, though, Nice’s attack looks somewhat questionable, not exactly an encouraging sign as it will be hard to see the visitors advancing if they are unable to score. There had been some hope that the offense could be bolstered by the arrival of the veteran Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder, but he is not yet match-fit, while Mario Balotelli and Bassem Srarfi are also unavailable, meaning Nice should opt for a 4-3-3 in the absence of a purely creative midfielder. Jean Michael Seri and Vincent Koziello have impressed getting forward from midfield, where they will likely be joined by Rémi Walter, but it is unrealistic to continue to rely on the Ivorian’s brilliance, especially given the blinding speed at which Napoli like to play.
To further deepen Nice’s woes, the team will also be without their away fans, the Italian club having banned them after incidents in the wake of a friendly between the sides two years ago. Nice are expected to reciprocate, but the tie may already be out of reach by the time next Tuesday comes around. Questions also remain over young goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale, who was poor again at the weekend after nearly being the goat against Ajax. As fine a shot-stopper as Cardinale can be, his handling and decision-making is nearly as consistently uneven. Against a side of the quality of Napoli, the odd gaffe will be a much more difficult thing to overcome.
It is true that Nice are hardly in good nick, but the visitors do hold the important advantage of having been playing competitive football for nearly a month, while Napoli will be taking to the pitch with something at stake for the first time this season. That said, the Partenopei have impressed over a challenging pre-season schedule including matches against Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, and will also have the advantage of continuity amongst the starting eleven, with manager Maurizio Sarri only having to make personnel decisions at right back (Maggio or Elseid Hysaj) and in central defense (José Callejón or Nikola Maksimovic).
Napoli will also be battling history at this stage of the Champions’ League. Since Italy dropped to fourth in the UEFA country coefficient, Serie A sides have struggled in the play-off round, with Sampdoria, Udinese, Lazio, Roma and Napoli themselves all having failed at this hurdle. Whether that will cloud the minds of a set of players who many observers saw as being the equal of Juventus for much of last season is another story, with Sarri again more worried about his team’s match fitness and Nice’s evinced quality than the past.
“Our condition is decent, or as decent as it can be for an Italian side at this stage of the year; it’s a difficult moment for us Italian clubs, and now we got drawn against a strong team – one who beat Ajax – who were in the Europa League final just a few months ago. This is an extremely difficult game for us, especially given the time of the year. We are not yet up to speed and we are already a side who tend to concede something; this is a knockout game so we’ve got to be careful that we don’t give anything away in this game.”
If Napoli are able to keep a clean sheet, Nice’s odds of succeeding in this tie will be exceedingly long. Few would have given them much of a chance against Ajax after a score draw at home, but Napoli’s voracious attack will be much tougher to muzzle. After an early season marked by a thrilling style of open play, Nice will need a more cautious approach at the San Paolo to progress. Lucien Favre has never been a manager to conform to outside pressure as regards his tactics and personnel, but without a number ten on the pitch, striking the right balance in midfield will be crucial.
SSC Napoli (4-3-3) Pepe Reina; Elseid Hysaj (or Christian Maggio), Raul Albiol, Kalidou Koulibaly, Faouzi Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Marek Hamsik; José Callejón, Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne
OGC Nice (4-3-3): Yoan Cardinale; Arnaud Souquet, Dante, Maxime Le Marchand, Malang Sarr; Vincent Koziello, Jean Michael Seri, Rémi Walter; Pierre Lees-Melou, Alassane Pléa, Allan Saint-Maximin
Predicted Score: SSC Napoli 2-1 OGC Nice