Napoli season in balance after February curse strikes again

Football Soccer - Real Madrid v Napoli - UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg - Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain - 15/2/17 Napoli's Amadou Diawara applauds fans after the game Reuters / Susana Vera Livepic

MILAN (Reuters) - Napoli visit old rivals AS Roma on Saturday with their season in danger of falling apart after the February curse struck for the second year in a row.

A run of three defeats in four games has effectively ended their hopes of catching Serie A leaders Juventus, left them struggling to catch second-placed Roma and put them on the brink of Champions League and Coppa Italia elimination.

Napoli, Serie A's highest scoring team and arguably its most entertaining, began last month six points behind leaders Juventus but they now find themselves 12 adrift after last Saturday's shock 2-0 home defeat by Atalanta.

A 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid in the first leg of their round of 16 tie has left their Champions League hopes hanging by the thread. Their chances of reaching the Coppa Italia final were dented by Tuesday's controversial 3-1 loss to Juve in a semi-final first leg.

It was a strangely familiar repeat of last season when Napoli led Serie A at the start of the month but relinquished top spot with a late 1-0 defeat against Juventus, who then stormed away to win the title, and Villarreal knocked them out of the Europa League.

The season has now entered a crucial stage. Five points behind Roma, defeat at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday will almost certainly signal and end to their hopes of finishing second and qualifying directly for the Champions League group stage.

They then face the return against Real Madrid on Tuesday before hosting Juventus twice in four days in early April - once in the league and then the Coppa.

The good news for coach Maurizio Sarri, who has not spoken since Tuesday's defeat, is that striker Arkadiusz Milik has returned from a long-term knee injury.

But the coach needs to fix a defence which has leaked nine goals in the last four games.

Roma are also bruised after losing 2-0 to neighbours Lazio in the first leg of the other Coppa semi-final on Wednesday.

"I think Napoli play lovely football. They play good possession football, they keep the ball, they play very fast and I respect that," said Roma goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

“It will be a very interesting game because it’s between two teams that are angry,” added the Poland international.

“Both teams will have a massive desire to go and get the result. I believe it will come down to the quality of the two teams and their mental strength.”

(Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar)