In a match that saw the return of Pepe Reina (yay!) and Goran Pandev (...eh?), Napoli was in dire need of three points to keep pace with Juventus and Roma. An ugly slugfest of a first half led to a mostly dull of a second half punctuated only by a moment of severe controversy.
Cagliari 1 Nene 9'
Napoli 1 Higuain 19' (pen)
Things started out in fairly dreadful fashion for Napoli. Cagliari saw almost all of the ball in the opening minutes, with Napoli unable to do anything to maintain possession or avoid sloppy giveaways every time they had the ball. That lead to a lot of nervy moments, including Nene getting the ball in the net just five minutes in. Fortunately, he was just offsides on the free kick that sprung him past Raul Albiol on to goal, and he picked up a yellow card for how long he continued play after the whistle.
Nene wasn't done, though. Just four minutes later, Radja Nanggolan put in a lovely diagonal ball to Davide Astori on the right side of Napoli's box. Christian Maggio, who continued the shocking form he showed against Inter last weekend, completely misread the ball at first, then got himself tied up and fell over as he tried to correct himself. That gave Astori all the time in the world to pick a pass, and he calmly centered the ball to a lurking Nene, who easily slotted the ball past Reina.
While it seemed like the Brazilian forward was in the middle of everything early on, he would only have one more action to give in this match. During a Napoli corner just before the 14th minute, he somehow managed to injure himself and had to come off, getting replaced Mauricio Pinilla. That marked a tipping point in the match, as Napoli quickly grew in to things stronger and stronger afterwards, as Cagliari had to reshuffle their buildup approach with Nene off so early.
Indeed, Napoli would find their equalizer just five minutes later. Lorenzo Insigne drove hard in to the Cagliari box from the left hand side, and crossed low to Pandev who was waiting about ten yards in front of goal. As he gathered the ball and started to turn to face the goal, Astori got his arm around the Macedonian and pulled him down for an easy penalty decision for the referee. Fortunately, there would be no controversy over who would take the penalty this time: Gonzalo Higuain stepped up and calmly put the ball in to the back of the net.
The rest of the first half passed with a few half-chances for both sides, but nothing of any particular note. Napoli was definitely the brighter of the two sides, but neither team could find that last pass to get a clear cut chance and cause a real danger. Jose Callejon would see himself in to the referee's book for retaliating against Marco Sau after the Cagliari striker hit him a little high during a challenge for the ball. Callejon's response was harsher, however, and the referee did not look kindly at the outburst.
Things looked bleak for Napoli at the end of the half, though: just as added time started, Reina came rushing out to gather a loose ball at the end of the box, and came up clutching his right hamstring. He couldn't even make it to halftime, and was quickly subbed out for Rafael. It's easy to judge in hindsight, but with how long Reina had been out and the winter break on the other side of this match, maybe one more day on the bench would have been a good idea to make sure he was 100% in January.
The second half was largely a dull affair, with Napoli getting the lion's share of the ball and chances, and Cagliari dropping ever deeper and more compact at the back. The hosts troubled Rafael's goal a couple of times on the counter, but never anything so serious as to cause real angst for Napoli fans. Looking for a way to unlock Cagliari's packed-in defense, Rafa Benitez pulled off a tiring Insigne in favor of Dries Mertens after 71 minutes. Two minutes later, it appeared that Napoli had found their go-ahead goal... but were denied by a dubious referee's decision.
Working off a free kick, Cagliari were able to clear away the initial danger, but only to the edge of the box, where Callejon met the ball in the air and volleyed it home brilliantly. As he turned to celebrate, however, the whistle sounded and the linesman's flag was up, indicating offside. There was no way Callejon was offside, though, as he was ten yards on when the ball was cleared. The referee seemed to indicate that the ball deflected off one of several Napoli players who were offside when the clearance was made, likely Goran Pandev based on who the ref gestured to, but that looked unlikely at best and straight up madness at worst based on the replays that were shown.
The rest of the match continued much as it had before that insane moment. Cagliari dropped ever deeper, though they did threaten on a couple of counters. For the most part, though, the ball stayed in Napoli's possession in the final third of the pitch, but despite all their efforts, the visitors just couldn't find their breakthrough. The biggest chance came when Daniele Dessena whiffed on a clearance and Mertens quickly pounced on the loose ball, but despite having virtually all of the goal at his mercy with the keeper standing at the near post, the Belgian managed to push the ball wide.
The match ended with the referee blowing for full time while Napoli was scrambling to get a free kick away from a dangerous area, and the post-match moments mostly consisted of Napoli players giving him a piece of their minds and Rafa Benitez storming down the tunnel in an obvious rage. Not really the inspiring end to the first half of the season that we were hoping for.
We'll be keeping you updated on all the news and events over the next two weeks as Serie A rests and prepares for the remainder of the season. With the upcoming transfer window rapidly approaching, we'll also be previewing the mercato madness, so don't stay away!