Rafael Benitez is an expert at succeeding in Europe, it has almost become his forte. The Spanish tactician guided Liverpool to successive Champions League finals and then masterminded Chelsea’s Europea League triumph last term. This was a performance indicative of his methods and puts his side in the driving seat despite being outplayed for large periods. The Italians, who are currently third in Serie A, set their stall out early and despite a bright start which saw Marek Hamsik come close, they were content to sit back and absorb the pressure. Benitez set his side out to stifle the Swans’ most effective avenues of attack – the wide men – as well as deploying two defensive midfielders to congest the central areas and give the free flowing hosts little room to manoeuvre. Pablo Hernandez managed to find pockets of space during the first period, allowing to him to supply Nathan Dyer and Wayne Routledge with continuous supply but a mixture of poor end product and good defending meant Wilfried Bony hardly had a sniff. When the first line of defence was penetrated, Rafael Cabral pulled off some smart stops as the home fans become increasingly frustrated despite their sides’ dominance. It was an archetypal Italian performance, a typical Benitez set-up and it worked to perfection.
Despite failing to break down a resolute Napoli defence and being left irritated, there were plenty of positives to take for Swansea manager Garry Monk. They’ll have their work cut out in seven days time if the want to advance any further in Europe but this was a different side to the one that struggled to find any sort of inspiration a couple of weeks ago. Central to everything that was good about the hosts was their wingers and quick, incisive passing. In recent weeks, they lacked urgency and were easy to pick-off but under Monk, they’ve found that spark again. There was ultimately no end product but this was the Swansea of old, outplaying one of Europe’s bigger clubs, a side that narrowly missed out on qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Monk was heavily criticised for rotating his squad for last weekend’s FA Cup tie but his decision was justified. The hosts were outstanding from start to finish and had the Liberty Stadium rocking. All that was missing was a cool end on front of goal, it was the least they deserved. They have to ensure that level of performance is carried into their league games, starting with Anfield on Sunday.
Four games, three defeats and a draw. Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and now Swansea face an uphill task to progress in the Champions League and Europa League further. Spurs’ defeat in Ukraine was disappointing but by no means fatal, unlike City and Arsenal’s reversals, and while the Swans are still in with a shout, one feels they will be left to rue their missed opportunities here. Not many sides go to the Stadio San Paolo and get a positive result but Monk’s charges will go there with plenty of heart. They know an away goal would swing the tie considerably in their favour but you would expect a different Napoli side to show up in seven days time. With Swansea’s lack of potency, the return of Michu would be a massive boost but that alone may not be enough.
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