City’s Champions League hopes hang by a thread after this defeat in Italy.
Bayern Munich must be beaten at the Etihad Stadium for City to have any chance of progression, and they will have to rely on Villarreal drawing with Napoli or better.
There was no shame for City, only regret at lapses in concentration that allowed the classy Cavani in on two occasions. In many respects this was an old-school European tie, a titanic tussle in a full, noisy stadium but City came up just short.
The hosts were going for broke, with their star names Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik all present and correct. The latter took his place after reports that his wife had come through an attempted car-jacking apparently unscathed.
The Stadio San Paolo, an old-fashioned concrete bowl that has seen better days, was three-quarters full over an hour before kick off with fireworks and catcalls welcoming the City squad as they emerged from underground to warm-up.
The preliminaries also saw Richards joining in with the substitutes as they readied themselves despite his omission, indicating the Blues’ strong team spirit.
Lesser teams may have retreated into their shells given the atmosphere at kick off, but not this City vintage who were on the front foot immediately. Yaya Toure wasted a good opening when he skied a shot five minutes in, and just after Mario Balotelli went close with a trademark flicked shot that rolled just wide.
But the home side hit back with Hamsik and Lavezzi going close before they took the lead on 17 minutes. Joe Hart conceded a corner with a flying save to deny Inler, but Cavani nipped in at the near post and nodded the ball through a crowd to an explosive reaction from the stands.
The goal rocked City back on their heels, but there’s an inner strength to this experienced squad and after calming things down they hit back on 33 minutes. Napoli’s defence allowed David Silva a snap-shot in the area, and Mario Balotelli - who else? - pounced on keeper De Sanctis’ parry to tap home from close range.
That settled things down in City’s favour, on and off the pitch with the cavernous stadium going somewhere near ‘quiet’, apart from the ecstatic City section.
But that all changed four minutes into the second half when Napoli retook the lead through the predatory Cavani again. The Uruguayan had just enough space to stab a low shot in past Hart’s left hand to ensure City would have an uphill battle for the rest of the half.
The City keeper ensured that the hosts did not increase their lead with 21 minutes left, making a good low block to deny Lavezzi after he had shaken off Kompany. Another third of Napoli’s stellar triumvirate, Hamsik came even closer to putting the game beyond doubt when he rattled the post with 14 minutes to go.
Chances flew in at both ends as a thrilling game became stretched. Balotelli was denied by an excellent save from De Sanctis, and seconds later Hart made another brilliant block from Maggio.
Balotelli headed over and forced another save as time ran out. Nasri, Aguero and Johnson were all thrown on as City gave it their all - though ultimately it was all in vain and now only a shock Villarreal win and a City victory over Bayern can prevent Europa League football.