Carlo Ancelotti conceded it was a bitter pill to swallow as Napoli came so close before being denied a place in the Champions League knock-out rounds with a dramatic 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on Tuesday.
Former Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker’s superb late save on Arkadiusz Milik ensured Liverpool advanced to the last 16 thanks to Mohamed Salah’s first-half goal.
The Italians had only needed a point to advance from Group C to the last 16 after missing out last season under Ancelotti’s predecessor Maurizio Sarri.
“We did everything in our power to get through,” said Ancelotti, who replaced Sarri with the aim of challenging in the top European competition and in Serie A this season.
“We are bitter, but we also know that we have exceeded our expectations and we challenged until the last minute in a very strong group.”
Napoli finished third behind Liverpool with French champions Paris Saint-Germain winning the group.
Ancelotti had said that his side would be “idiots” not to reach the knock-out rounds.
“The cake has been made –- now we need to add a little cherry,” the 59-year-old three-time Champions League winning coach warned his players beforehand.
In the end, Napoli finished level on points with Liverpool but were edged out on the third tie breaker, goals scored. That meant every point and goal in the group proved to be decisive.
Napoli had beaten Liverpool 1-0 at home in October thanks to Lorenzo Insigne’s late winner. Since Liverpool won by the same score on Tuesday, that eliminated the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Napoli paid for a goalless draw at Red Star Belgrade and a 2-2 draw in France, where Angel Di Maria scored a late equaliser for PSG.
Red Star also came away with a goal in a 3-1 loss at Napoli’s San Paulo Stadium.
“I have no regrets about specific matches, I say that we lacked luck,” insisted Ancelotti.
“The boys are now disappointed, but this rage must pour into the Europa League and must become positive energy, we will focus on this new adventure, convinced that we can have our say.”
Napoli won the old UEFA Cup in 1989 for their only European title.
On social media, there were jokes that the Italian team had chosen the wrong hotel in Liverpool, with captain Marek Hamsik and his teammates sleeping in the Hotel Titanic.
On the pitch, Hamsik was outclassed in midfield with Insigne failing to feature up front and defender Mario Rui unable to cope with Salah.
The English could count on the trio of Alisson, centre-back Virgil Van Dijk and Salah, brought in at a cost of over 200 million euros ($226 million) since July 2017.
Napoli, by contrast, do not have the finances to attract top players, like many Italian clubs, with both Salah and Alisson, products of Serie A side Roma.
But for Napoli owner Aurelio Di Laurentiis, his “top player” is Ancelotti, a former Champions League-winning coach with AC Milan and Real Madrid.
“If we are eliminated? It doesn’t change anything. Our big signing is Ancelotti,” the Italian film producer insisted.
But even the magic of Ancelotti, who has won trophies in all of Europe’s top five leagues, did not work as, for the first time since 2001, he failed to qualify his team for the last 16.
Napoli now turns to the Europa League, in which Sarri’s side showed little interest in last season as they targeted a first Serie A title since 1990.
“The Europa League will start in the spring and we want to go as far as possible in it,” said Hamsik.
“Going out like this hurts, but we have to pick ourselves up and focus on the trip to Cagliari (Serie A).
Napoli is eight points behind champions Juventus in the Italian league.