Scoreless Draw Favours Napoli as Swansea Squander Opportunities in Europa League

Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2014

Napoli's Gokhan Inler, center, jumps for the ball as Swansea players including Jonjo Shelvey, left, and Kyle Bartley, right, look on, during their Europa League round of 32 first leg soccer match at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea, Wales, Thursday Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
JON SUPER/Associated Press

Before the first competitive match between Swansea and Napoli, Rafa Benitez wondered just how much the Welsh club cared about the Europa League. They are just five points from the relegation zone.

But Swansea attempted 18 shots and they tested both of Napoli’s goalkeepers. Pepe Reina replaced Rafael Cabral at the start of the second half after the Brazilian made several awkward saves—diving, tipping the ball over the net, and finally punching it away before landing and injuring his knee—to preserve the clean sheet.

“What does it mean when two ‘keepers on the same team are the best on the field? That both are good,” Benitez told Sky after the match. “We knew it was a difficult game. English football is faster and more intense.”

It was Swansea that performed more like they did when they won the League Cup, their only major trophy in their 102-year history. In the first half, according to Opta Sports, they had already shot more times (11) than Arsenal in either game against Napoli earlier in the Champions League.

They enjoyed 69 percent of the ball, according to UEFA’s stats. There were great passes from Pablo Hernandez. Wayne Routledge was speedy on the left flank and Wilfried Bony out-muscled everyone.

The odd time Napoli did attack, defender Chico Flores timed his tackles and forced players like Marek Hamsik and Jose Callejon to have another think.

And it was all the more special considering the context of it all: In 2003, Swansea barely did enough to stay in the fourth division. “When you go back to then,” club chairman Huw Jenkins told, “our only thought was to try and survive from day to day. We were very similar to other clubs at that level, scratching around for money to pay bills and to live from week to week.”

Maybe Garry Monk has made a difference. Monk is still registered as a player but better served as a manager than the club’s captain. “I was a player going into training one moment, then taking charge of games we have had already like the [south Wales] derby, and now against Napoli,” he told the press before the match, “so it's a whirlwind.”

Swansea have lost just once under Monk after sacking Michael Laudrup, and they have played much more freely since.

JON SUPER/Associated Press

But the crucial goal never came. Even though it’s Napoli, a far greater opponent than the teams Swansea must beat to stay in the Premier League, all their work produced nothing. “The result is positive,” Benitez said, and here is why: on 27 February, Napoli will host the second leg back home at San Paolo, where they have won 14 of 18 games, and last lost on 23 November.

It was no matter that Napoli failed to win, again, in Great Britain. (They have drawn two and lost seven matches in Wales, Scotland and England combined.)

Benitez is a specialist in this competition and he is vying to be the first manager to win the Europa League with three different clubs. The match at home may prove one of the most important for him this season, even though Napoli have already advanced to the final of the Coppa Italia, even though they are just four points off Roma in second.

He cares about this competition, and “the important thing," he said, "is to win: 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, all these results to me should be fine.”

And the Swans were wary, even before the game started. “I saw that in the Coppa Italia they lost the first leg to Roma and then came back very strong at home,” midfielder Julian de Guzman told the BBC on Wednesday, “and they have been showing that week in, week out.”