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Feb 28, 2014

Swans exit Europe with heads held high

Speaking before the game, new Swans boss Garry Monk explained that so long as his team gave 100 percent on Thursday night, the result wouldn't matter. Monk will be pleased then that his side did indeed give everything they had; he might even be a little bit sour that his side aren't progressing in the Europa League, and rightfully so because Swansea more than deserved it.

The 3-1 scoreline was unflattering to the Welsh side. Lorenzo Insigne's opener was the result of early nerves from the Swans' defence (and Dwight Tiendalli in particular), while Napoli's third came with all the inevitability of an NHL empty-netter, slotted with virtually the last kick of the game to punish a Swansea side desperately hunting the equalizer which would have won the match on the away goals rule.

- Report: Napoli 3-1 Swansea - Report: De Guzman: Swans unlucky to lose

The goal which effectively won the game for Napoli came via a huge chunk of dumb luck, as Gonzalo Higuain capitalized on a double deflection to score. Despite their supposed superiority on paper, Napoli only mustered four shots on target in their own stadium -- a shame then that three of them went in.

By contrast, Swansea were ostensibly far more threatening, putting 12 of 16 shots on target. Marvin Emnes' tight-angle chip might have spun wide before crossing the line, but was cleared from the goalmouth, while Wilfried Bony and Tiendalli had headers saved by Pepe Reina, with Tiendalli's effort from a corner kick the Swans’ best chance.

Had just one more of the Swans’ many chances gone in before Gokhan Inler killed the game, it seems unlikely Napoli could have fought back. For 70 minutes, Swansea had it all: possession, chances, momentum. Rafa Benitez has tried to put a positive spin on proceedings, asserting that his side "deserved to go through" -- in truth, all his side really deserved were several more yellow cards for persistent fouls, half of which weren't even called.

The truth is Napoli were lucky to survive Thursday night, and Benitez's biased interpretation is an attempt to disguise that fact, and as such is a tribute to how well Swansea played. Ultimately, it was not some so-called difference in quality between the sides, or any kind of great tactical masterclass which won the game. Fitness was really the Swans' undoing, cumulative season-long fatigue taking its toll on a small squad.

As soon as the clock hit the 70 minute mark, the Swans started to cede possession for the first time since the opening few minutes, despite being in a winning position. It seems deeply ironic that a possession side like Swansea couldn't do what it does best when it needed to the most, but rather than hold the ball and see out the game, Swansea let it go, and tried to defend on tiring legs.

It only took eight minutes for the Italians to turn their first real spell of possession into a goal, and although Higuain's strike was extremely fortuitous, Swansea had left themselves vulnerable by giving up ground. It's easy to be critical as a spectator, of course; anyone who has played sport to any level knows well enough the truth of the expression "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak", and these spirited Swans were running way past empty.

The Swans have battled hard and been stretched thin through a season marked by injuries. Even Thursday night the Swans were without Jonjo Shelvey, Leon Britton and Michu, three of the most important players at the club. One can only wonder what might have been had Swansea been at full-strength, but even so, that is to take nothing away from those who did play.

Swansea's Europa League adventure is over, this time. If nothing else, the team went out in style, playing great football, unlucky to be denied a major scalp and further progression in the tournament. They might yet be back -- in the coming seasons, with perhaps a fuller squad, and fewer injuries, this is a side that can expect to regularly challenge for domestic cups.

In the meantime, the experience ought to have been a big positive for everyone involved with the club. If Monk's motivational skills can safeguard against the inevitable anti-climax, then Swansea should go into their remaining league fixtures with confidence and validation, having proven they can compete with some of Europe's best.

Monk might even be thankful to Tom Ince for providing plenty of motivation for Sunday's match against Crystal Palace with some big talk of his own. With just the Premier League left to concentrate on, and a gradually emptying treatment room, the table is set for Swansea to finish a turbulent and unpredictable season on a high.