MILAN (Reuters) - Napoli are proud to be in the Champions League and it would be unfair to describe it as a distraction, coach Maurizio Sarri said on Sunday as he toned down previous remarks about the competition.
When the Serie A leaders lost 2-1 at Manchester City earlier this month, Sarri rested midfielders Allan and Jorginho, saying his priority would be the following Serie A match against Inter Milan.
Sarri said the logic behind his thinking was that he expected the English Premier League side to win all their Group F matches anyway, leaving Napoli to battle with Shakhtar Donetsk for second place.
Serie A leaders Napoli host the return leg on Wednesday, but this time Sarri said the match would be treated as a priority.
“Is the Champions League a distraction for us? It would be over-the-top to say that; we are proud to be part of it, given that we are talking about the most important competition in Europe,” he told reporters after Sunday’s 3-1 win over Sassuolo.
“It’s also natural that in the minds of the players they focus more on the competition they’ve got a better chance at, but we must be eager to challenge ourselves against the best.
“Taking part is a cause for pride, although in the back of our minds we know we only have a small chance of winning it. But to call it a distraction would be mean-spirited.”
Napoli have made a flying start to Serie A, taking 31 points from a possible 33, although their squad lacks strength in depth and they have Inter Milan, Juventus and Lazio in hot pursuit.
“It’s a really difficult match, but also a great challenge,” said Sarri. “I think that for the last two or three months, Manchester City have been the strongest team in Europe.”
“We want to face them with a strong team although we know it will be very tough to win. But we believe in it and we will play a great match.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Pritha Sarkar