Napoli coach apologizes after loss at Empoli further damages hopes for Europe

ROME (AP) — Napoli's title defense is going from bad to worse.

The team's third coach this season apologized to fans following a disheartening 1-0 loss at relegation-threatened Empoli on Saturday that left Napoli at risk of failing to qualify for Europe.

Napoli remained in eighth place, a whopping 34 points behind leader Inter Milan with only five rounds remaining.

“We need to work on our pride — more than tactics at this point,” Napoli coach Francesco Calzona said. “I want to apologize to Napoli’s fans.”

Alberto Cerri scored four minutes in with a header for Empoli, which moved four points clear of the drop zone.

Napoli's only shot on goal came midway through the second half when Kvicha Kvaratskhelia slalomed past two defenders before launching his effort. Empoli goalkeeper Elia Caprile pushed the shot wide.

“Empoli came out with ferociousness. We came out soft and were timid,” Calzona said. “It’s inconceivable but it’s my responsibility. Evidently, I didn’t transmit the desire to give our all.”

Napoli has struggled all season and never found the form that led the Partenopei to their first Italian league title in more than three decades a year ago.

“This teams needs to do more. We owe it to the city and we owe it to the club, because they pay us and we need to assume responsibility,” Calzona said. “It’s my fault and the players' fault, because the club lets us do our jobs without any issues. Our fans follow us home and away and we always have a full stadium. We have everything in place to do well and we’re not able to. That’s really upsetting to me."

Napoli has won just three of nine Serie A matches since Calzona replaced Walter Mazzarri in February. The club won four out of 12 under Mazzarri and six of 12 under Rudi Garcia, who was hired after title-winning coach Luciano Spalletti left after last season.

Also, Hellas Verona beat Udinese 1-0 with a stoppage-time header from Diego Coppola in a matchup of teams which both entered one point above the relegation zone.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Andrew Dampf, The Associated Press