Napoli can only win tonight if they master the mental side of the game

Ancelotti Napoli indica dito
18 April at 17:00
Carlo Ancelotti has issued a rallying call to his players, demanding ‘courage, intelligence and heart’ from them if they are to overturn their 2-0 first leg deficit against Arsenal in the Europa League quarter-final tonight. Few people doubt that Napoli have the talent at their disposal to succeed tonight, but it will be the mental side of the game which will determine who progresses tonight.
The first of these mental aspects that Ancelotti asked of his players, courage, needs to be evident from the outset. It is vital that they come out with a high intensity from the kick-off. A lot has been made of Arsenal’s poor away form, and there is no getting away from the fact that they do not travel well. Napoli have the opportunity to get at them from the first whistle, and get them rattled. If they let Arsenal settle into a pattern and start controlling the game, as they did last week, their task will be a lot harder. But if they work hard to win the ball back high up the pitch and disrupt the Gunners rhythm, they have every chance of getting inside their heads.
A fast start will also help them to make use of their biggest advantage tonight, the home fans, who should be Napoli’s 12th man tonight. There is no doubt that they will give Arsenal a hostile reception and that the atmosphere inside the San Paolo will be electric. It is imperative that Napoli start well, as that will only increase the pressure on Arsenal players, whose mentalities have been questioned at length in the British press following their toils away from home. Napoli must show their fans enough courage on the pitch to turn the San Paolo into a cauldron of passion, to ramp up the pressure on their visitors even further.
But Napoli cannot simply rely on passion and desire, they need to show game awareness. Having failed to get an all-important away goal in London last week, they know that conceding tonight will make their task so much harder. While they must try and press and probe Arsenal as much as possible, they have to remain calm and organised at the back. To commit too many men forward early on in search of an opening goal could play into Arsenal’s hands, as they will look to use their pace up front to exploit and chances they may have on the break.
Napoli need to find the right balance between attack and defence, and not panic if they do not score early on. Ancelotti pointed to this in his pre-match press conference when he said "We want the match to last for 90 minutes, and more if it is possible. This does not mean we have to score after 30, 10 or 15 minutes. We want to keep our chances alive by being smart and confident.”
Ancelotti’s final demand of his Napoli players is the most intangible, but also the most important, heart. They need to come off the pitch tonight, regardless of the result, knowing that they gave absolutely everything they had. To find an example of this quality, you need to look no further than Ajax’s victory over Juventus at the Allianz Stadium on Tuesday night. Few people gave them a chance of qualifying, but they combined their talent with an intense belief in their abilities and a desire to honour their shirts. Napoli have a similarly daunting task in front of them, but they too can overcome the odds if they can master the mental aspects of the game tonight.

Napoli have been lacking in these mental attributes too often this season, and especially in recent months, but with a Europa League semi-final up for grabs tonight, they have the chance to make up for a disappointing title challenge, by succeeding in their biggest test of the season to date, in what will be a season defining match.


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