Leicester’s European campaign will go on but not in the way they wanted and, perhaps more distressingly, there is no end in sight to their defensive problems. Brendan Rodgers’ team contributed embarrassingly to their own defeat to an under-strength Napoli side and, as a result, dropped out of the Europa League and into the less-vaunted Europa Conference League.
“With all due respect to the competition, I’m not sure what it is,” said Rodgers, who was equally frank about his shortcomings after another vexing defeat. “We were good offensively but nowhere near good enough defensively,” he said. “We’ve played a number of systems and shapes. [this season], individually it comes down to being able to have that mentality to track a runner or stop a cross. These are basics of the game that we’re not doing well. “
The match was an exhibit of what makes Leicester such a puzzle these days. No sooner had they got themselves into a near-hopeless position by letting in two cheap goals in the first 24 minutes than they drew level with disarming ease. Then they grew hesitant and ragged again.
They could not cite absences as an excuse because, even though they left behind seven players owing to Covid and other illnesses, Rodgers still deployed a near first-choice lineup. Napoli, on the other hand, were deprived of several key performers by injuries, including Kalidou Koulibaly and the gifted striker Victor Osimhen. Given the challenges faced by his team, Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti said this match would provide an “x-ray of the players’ souls”.
Rodgers may have been tempted to examine his players’ heads after they conceded sloppily after four minutes, their latest mishap in a season riddled with bad starts. This time the problem began when Youri Tielemans failed to control a dicey pass by Caglar Soyuncu, allowing Piotr Zielinski to seize possession and feed Andrea Petagna. The striker’s shot from 20 yards deflected into the path of Adam Ounas, who, on his first start for Napoli in over two years, shuffled past Wilfred Ndidi and fired a low shot into the corner of the net from 12 yards.
Leicester had missed a marvelous opportunity to open the scoring just a minute earlier. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall cantered down the left wing and crossed to Timothy Castagne, whose shot was kept out by the combined efforts of defender Mário Rui and goalkeeper Alex Meret.
Amir Rrahmani made an excellent block to deny Ndidi in the 13th minute but, that aside, Leicester’s response to falling behind was unimpressive. Their defending was abject in the 23rd minute when Napoli helped themselves to a two-goal lead. Zielinski glided through the middle before slipping a pass to Petagna, who, having been kept onside by Ryan Bertrand, eschewed an easy shooting chance in order to offer an even simpler one to Elif Elmas, who rolled the ball into the empty net.
Leicester soon found an equally straightforward way back into the game. Jamie Vardy had made little impact on his first European start of the season until his failure to flick on an inswinging free-kick by James Maddison caught Elmas off guard. The ball bounced off the Napoli player and into the path of Jonny Evans, who swept it into the net.
Six minutes later Leicester equalized with a better version of that goal. This time, after a free-kick was not cleared properly, Dewsbury-Hall sent a left-footed volley beyond the goalkeeper from the edge of the box.
Defences were so ramshackle that more goals seemed inevitable. Elmas made it 3-2 by exploiting loose marking to collect Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s low cross from the left and score. Maddison should have equalized almost immediately after a wild pass by the home side presented him with the ball in front of goal, but he shot against the outside of the post.
Leicester had time to muster another equalizer but too little precision. Vardy fluffed their best chance in stoppage time.
After the final whistle went to Naples, Leicester were teased with a sudden reprieve as Legia Warsaw were awarded a late penalty in the group’s other game. But that was missed, so Spartak Moscow finished as winners of Group C, while Napoli advanced as runners-up, leaving third-placed Leicester to settle for a competition with which their manager had hoped not to get acquainted.