Group A. The Group of Death. The Group Which All Journalists Had Figured Out. Of course it would be Manchester City taking the top spot -- with all their splashy purchases, how could anyone else even get a look in? Bayern Munich would take the second slot -- they're a big name, after all, a regular in the Champions League, runners up just two years previous. As for Napoli and Villarreal, well, each had one decent player (Edinson Cavani, Giuseppe Rossi), so it was anyone's guess who'd make it into the Europa League.
Well. Look who's laughing now. That's right, it's the entire city of Naples. The partenopei faithful are still riding high from the last round, when a brace from Cavani gave them a win over City, bumping them up to second place in the group. And so, it all comes down to this: Napoli must win at Villarreal on Wednesday. Sure, Manchester City could fail to beat Bayern, Napoli could lose and they'd still go through to the next round -- but this team shouldn't leave its destiny to others. Taking all three points is vital.*
Villarreal, on the other hand, have absolutely nothing to play for, unless pride is counted as "something." The Yellow Submarine have earned no points in the group, and the loss of Rossi to long-term injury certainly hasn't helped their situation. Yet football clubs often do see pride as a tangible thing, and finding just one point, particularly against high-flying Napoli, could very well be the home side's goal on Wednesday.
But can that goal be achieved? Villarreal's woes don't stop at the Champions League. They sit 15th in La Liga, having won just three matches, and fell 1-0 to Racing Santander at the weekend. In the CL, they've yet to score at home. Napoli may not be doing as well as they'd like in Serie A, currently sitting fifth, but at least they've started to look once again like the dominant side they were last season.
And therein lies the danger for the Yellow Submarine. Last week against Lecce, Walter Mazzarri tinkered with his team, giving starters like Paolo Cannavaro, Walter Gargano, and Marek Hamsik a chance to rest. But by the 67th minute, both Gargano and Hamsik had been added to the mix, leaving Mazzarri with his preferred front seven. While Lecce did manage a last-minute goal, the Holy Trinity looked better than ever. Cavani's second goal was a product of the complete synchronicity of the azzurri front three: Hamsik grabbed the ball in the middle of the pitch (from Cavani, actually, playing on the other side of the halfway line, bless), sending it on to Lavezzi, who was racing like a madman along the left flank. Pocho slid the ball across the face of goal, where an onrushing Cavani stuck out a toe to poke the ball in.
It's moments like those that perfectly encapsulate the pace, power, and beauty of this Napoli side. If they're clicking, they're unstoppable. Play like they did at the weekend, and the partenopei won't need to rely on what's going on between City and Bayern.
*if nothing else, only to make sure the author's liver and glassware collection survive intact.