By Brian Homewood
Napoli’s season has already been written off as a failure by critics, but Rafael Benitez’s side could still land only their second European title and qualify for the Champions League.
Napoli host Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final on Thursday (10.05pm) with the team still maintaining a media blackout on the orders of outspoken president Aurelio Di Laurentiis.
The blackout was imposed a month ago after Napoli, having dropped to sixth in Serie A following five matches without a win, were knocked out of the Coppa Italia at home by Lazio.
Their season appeared to be all but over and it was not even clear whether Benitez would make it to the end of the campaign.
They are now back up to fourth in Serie A, however, challenging AS Roma and Lazio for a place in the Champions League, which they could also reach by winning the Europa League.
There is even talk of Benitez renewing his contract which expires at the end of the season and Napoli fans do not know whether to laugh or cry at their team’s unpredictability.
They have scored seven goals in their last two home Serie A games, sweeping aside Sampdoria and AC Milan, yet in between were thrashed 4-2 at Empoli
They also thumped VfL Wolfsburg 6-3 on aggregate in the Europa League quarter-final, including a 4-1 win in Germany, as they continued their best European campaign since the Diego Maradona-inspired side who won the UEFA Cup in 1989.
In fact, Napoli have been spectacularly inconsistent since Benitez took over, finishing third in Serie A and winning the Coppa Italia in his first season in charge.
They could have challenged for the title had they not developed a habit of dropping points at home to teams from the lower half of the table.
Dnipro are second in the Ukrainian league, six points behind leaders Dynamo Kiev and one ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk, and coach Myron Markevich has admitted they are struggling to compete on two fronts.
“Surely, this game in Naples is very important for us. But we also have to fight in domestic championship. It is not going to be easy. We lack resources,” he said.
Markevich can be a tough master and was not impressed after his team won 3-0 at Chernomorets in their last league game.
“It is not acceptable to play like we did in the first half,” he said.
“I had a feeling my players had loaded heavy bags the day before. And we also lost the ball too many times following unforced mistakes.”