For a while Leicester were on course to emerge triumphant from one of the hardest tests that they are likely to face in this season’s Europa League. Ayoze Pérez and Harvey Barnes gave them a two-goal lead over Napoli, their main rivals in Group C and joint favourites to win the tournament outright. But the classy visitors struck back through two goals by the excellent Victor Osimhen to earn a share of the points, which was the least Napoli deserved. Leicester’s frustration deepened when Wilfred Ndidi was sent off in stoppage time for a second bookable offence.
This was not the tournament in which these clubs would have chosen to meet but since both dropped out of the top four of their domestic leagues on the last day of last season, it was the best they could do. That may change if Napoli’s president has his way – Aurelio De Laurentiis this week called for a “modern and lucrative” revamp of the continent’s football, involving smaller domestic competitions and “a European league with a democratic system of entry” – but the Italian side’s manager, Luciano Spalletti, described duels with the likes of Leicester as “a bike we have always dreamed of riding”.
Brendan Rodgers made five changes to the lineup that started Saturday’s defeat here by Manchester City but was still able to field a formidable side, including Patson Daka and Boubakary Soumaré, each making their first start for the club since joining in the summer. Spalletti made four changes to the Napoli team that made it three wins from three Serie A matches this season by beating Juventus last weekend.
The visitors were quick to show their menace, with Victor Osimhen testing Kasper Schmeichel in the third minute with a powerful shot from just outside the area. Leicester wasted no time retorting. Pérez, eager to redeem himself after being sent off against West Ham in his last outing, burst into the right-hand side of the box and showed impressive strength to fend off Kalidou Koulibaly before feeding Daka, who helped it on to Barnes at the back post. David Ospina bolted off his line to divert his shot just wide from six yards.
The pace was exhilarating and Leicester intended to find out whether Napoli could keep up with it. The visitors fell short in the ninth minute, when Barnes whizzed down the left wing and floated a cross over to the right, where Pérez arrived to guide a sidefooted volley into the net from 10 yards despite Ospina’s attempt to keep it out. Home fans broke into a chorus of God Save the Queen, as if the Spaniard’s goal somehow avenged England’s loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
Lorenzo Insigne, a victor in that match, tried to negate Pérez’s goal in the 13th minute but failed to keep his free-kick from the edge of the area below the bar. Then Osimhen did likewise after beating Jonny Evans with a dinky nutmeg.
Osimhen embarrassed Evans again in the 28th minute, sprinting past him before teeing up Kévin Malcuit, who fired over from 16 yards. Napoli’s shooting was awry but their passing and movement caused plenty of problems. Soon Osimhen tormented the other centre-back, holding off Jannik Vestergaard as he stormed down the right and crossed for Piotr Zielinski, whose close-range shot was blocked by Timothy Castagne. With Insigne blasting wide twice before the break and Schmeichel batting away a dangerous header from Hirving Lozano, Leicester were grateful to reach half-time with their lead intact.
Rodgers, recognising the need to stem the flow, made two substitutions for the second period. But Napoli grew more dominant and Leicester struggled to get out of their own half in the early part of the second half. Daka and Kelechi Iheanacho scampered hard off the ball but seldom got to spend any time with it – until just before the hour when the Zambian shot into the net after nimble work by Iheanacho and Youri Tielemans. The hosts erupted with joy and relief, only for a VAR review to rule that Daka had been fractionally offside.
But Leicester had the taste for goals again. Five minutes later they got one with which no one could quibble, Barnes lashing a low shot from the left into the far corner after Iheanacho opened up Napoli’s defence.
Leicester were not safe yet, especially not with Osimhen still on the hunt. The striker brought Napoli back into contention by poking the ball over the out-rushing Schmeichel after nifty play by Insigne and Fabián Ruiz. There was no surprise that the Nigerian was responsible for the last twist, too. When Matteo Politano flighted in an inviting cross from the right, Osimhen leapt above Caglar Soyuncu and nodded into the net from five yards.