Leicester City drop into Europa Conference League after sloppy defeat to Napoli

Defensive issues continue for Brendan Rodgers’s side in Europe

Napoli 3 Leicester City 2

Leicester’s European campaign will go on but not in the way they wanted and, perhaps even more distressingly, there is no end in sight to their defensive problems. Brendan Rodgers’s team contributed embarrassingly to their own defeat to an understrength Napoli side and, as a result, dropped out of the Europa League and into the lesser vaunted Europa Conference League.

This match was the latest exhibit of what makes Leicester such a puzzle these days. No sooner had they got themselves into a near-hopeless position through basic ineptitude – two goals down after 24 minutes – than they levelled matters with disarming ease. And then they grew hesitant and ragged again, ending up as deserving losers.

Leicester 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 line-up. Napoli, on the other hand, were deprived of several key performers by injuries, including the centre back Kalidou Koulibaly and the gifted striker Victor Osimhen, who scored twice in the 2-2 draw at the King Power in September. Given the challenges faced by his team, the 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 an approximate 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, despite making his first start for Napoli in over two years, was sharp enough to shuffle past Wilfred Ndidi and fire a low shot across Kasper Schmeichel and into the corner of the net from 12 yards.

What must have annoyed Rodgers all the more is that his team had created a marvellous opportunity to open the scoring just a minute previously. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall was allowed to canter down the left wing and cross to Timothy Castagne, whose shot from seven yards was kept out by the combined efforts of defender Mario Rui and goalkeeper Alex Meret.

Amir Rrahmani made an excellent block to deny Ndidi in the 13th minute but, that chance aside, Leicester's response to falling behind was unimpressive. Their defending was downright 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 on side by Ryan Bertrand, eschewed an easy shooting chance when one-on-one with Schmeichel in order to offer an even simpler one to Elif Elmas, who rolled the ball into the empty net.

If that all seemed embarrassingly easy for Napoli, 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 seemed to catch Elmas off guard – the ball bounced off the Napoli player and into the path of Jonny Evans, who swept it into the net from seven yards.

Six minutes later Leicester equalised 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.

The match was so open, and the defences so ramshackle, that more goals seemed inevitable. Schmeichel thwarted Ounas early in the second half before but could not stop Elmas from making it 3-2 in the 53rd minute, the striker exploiting loose marking to collect Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s low cross from the let and finish from eight yards.

Maddison should have equalised almost immediately after a wild pass by the home side presented him with the ball right in front of goal. But he guided his shot against the outside of the post from six yards.

Leicester had plenty of time to muster another equaliser, but too little precision. Vardy fluffed their best chance in stoppage time. After the final whistle went in Naples, Leicester were teased with a sudden reprieve, as Legia Warsaw were awarded a late penalty in 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 the lowest-ranking continental competition. – Guardian

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