LONDON (AFP) – Napoli sent Leicester crashing out of the Europa League as the Italian side advanced to the knockout stages with a 3-2 win in a dramatic conclusion to Group C on Thursday (Dec 9).
Leicester were top of the group going into the final round of matches, but Brendan Rodgers’ team were condemned to an unwanted place in the Europa Conference League after the defeat in Naples dropped them to third place.
Napoli had blown a two-goal lead as Leicester hit back to level by half-time, but Eljif Elmas’s second goal of the game won it for the hosts after the interval.
Spartak Moscow finished top of the group after a 1-0 win at Legia Warsaw, secured by Zelimkhan Bakaev’s 17th-minute goal.
Leicester would have salvaged their Europa League place if Legia’s Tomas Pekhart hadn’t missed a stoppage-time penalty.
Napoli ended in second place, two points ahead of Leicester, and will feature in the Europa League knockout round play-offs in February.
Continuing a disappointing season for the FA Cup holders, Leicester now have the unwanted burden of playing in the knockout play-off round of Europe’s least glamourous club competition when it resumes in the new year.
“I’ve got to be honest I don’t even know what the competition is,” Rodgers said of the Europa Conference League.
“I was focused on the Europa League and winning this group and at the very least finishing second. But I am sure we will find out soon enough.”
Seven Leicester players and three staff members missed the trip to Italy, with Rodgers revealing both positive Covid-19 cases and other illnesses had depleted his squad.
He was still able to name eight of the team beaten by Aston Villa last weekend, in contrast to Napoli, who are in the midst of a major injury crisis which deprived them of Victor Osimhen, Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Fabian Ruiz.
Despite their fitness issues, Napoli took the lead in the fourth minute as Adam Ounas marked his first start for the club since 2019 with a clinical low strike from just inside the penalty area.
Napoli struck again in the 24th minute when Andrea Petagna beat Leicester’s offside trap and squared his pass to Elmas, who slotted past Kasper Schmeichel with ease.
Jonny Evans gave Leicester hope when he fired home after Napoli failed to clear James Maddison’s 27th-minute free-kick.
Rodgers’ men blew a 2-0 lead in a draw against Napoli in September and it was Napoli’s turn to squander that advantage this time.
Evans’ first goal in Europe for eight years was followed in the 33rd minute by Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall’s maiden goal for Leicester.
Maddison’s free-kick was only cleared to the edge of the area, where the 23-year-old midfielder smashed a superb volley into the bottom corner.
But Napoli regained the lead in the 53rd minute as Elmas lashed home from Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s cross.
Maddison hit the post from just six yards moments later as Rodgers held his head in frustration.
Real Sociedad secured second place in Group B with a 3-0 win against PSV Eindhoven, who drop into the Europa Conference League.
Mikel Oyarzabal netted a 43rd-minute penalty and scored again in the 62nd minute before Alexander Sorloth struck in the final moments after Ibrahim Sangare’s red card for PSV.
Group B winners Monaco were held to a 1-1 draw at Sturm Graz.
Group A winners Lyon lost their 100 per cent record in this season’s competition after a 1-1 draw against second-placed Rangers.
In Group D, first-placed Eintracht Frankfurt drew 1-1 at third-placed Fenerbahce, while second-placed Olympiakos lost 1-0 against Antwerp.