Bologna 2, Napoli 2: Hope, Demolished

Giuseppe Bellini

A dire affair looked to finish in Napoli's favor, but that changed in a heartbeat in the last minutes of the match.

After clawing their way in to a late lead away from home despite a lackluster performance, Napoli looked to be headed home with all three points. Sadly, that was not to be.

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Bologna 2 Bianchi 37', 90'
Napoli 2 Higuain (pen.) 62', Callejon 80'

The lineup was something of a disappointment, with Lorenzo Insigns hitting the bench despite his wonderful recent form, and still no Marek Hamsik in the starting lineup. Goran Pandev started in the Slovakian's stead, with Dries Mertens on the left side of attacking midfield and Callejon on his usual spot on the right. As expected, Anthony Reveillere got the nod at left back, and the injury situation in the middle of the pitch saw the continuation of the Inler-Dzemaili double pivot.

Despite the protestations of the English commentators for this match, Bologna never seemed likely to do much threatening in the early part of the match. They vaguely threatened on a couple of set pieces, but otherwise they just looked to sit back and cut off space for Napoli's attackers to work with. This caused much consternation for the commentators, who thought surely Bologna would "go for it" at home. Then again, the same commentators spoke of the Juve-Lazio match as though it was the biggest match of the season, so maybe they weren't the best choice for a Serie A match.

Then, out of what looked like nothing, Alessandro Diamanti found Rolando Bianchi in a little bit of space having floated away from Raul Albiol in the box. Diamanti put in one of his trademark crosses, and Bianchi met it with his head, putting the ball across a diving Rafael and in to the far side of the goal for a lead after 35 minutes.

Yay.

If you'll note the lack of mention of Napoli's attack so far, there's a good reason for that. Napoli struggled for the whole of the first half to put together a cogent push forward. They did get a few shots, but none on target and they never really succeeded at making Bologna's defense nervous until Callejon got free for a header in front of goal just before the half, but even that effort went over the bar. It's telling that whoscored's live match ratings thought Reveillere was Napoli's best player at halftime, when really his best contribution was not actively screwing anything up.

The second half started much the same, with some carry over of chippy play from Bologna that started late in the first half. Bologna seemed content to take their lead and shut up shop with it, and with Pandev as the "playmaker" instead of Hamsik, Napoli was unable to unlock the defense. About the most exciting moment early in the half came when Gonzalo Higuain went for a bicycle kick at the top of the box and completely whiffed on it.

Finally, though, Hamsik was brought on with Pandev going the other way at the stroke of the 57th minute. He had an immediate impact, forcing a good save from Gianluca Curci on a free kick. Higuain then contrived to miss one of the easiest headers ever just two yards from goal with Curci nowhere near where he'd need to be for a save.

A fit of insanity from Bologna's defense would give Napoli a way back in to the match shortly after. Blerim Dzemaili drove in to the box after being fed by Hamsik, only to be instantly felled by multiple defenders. The ref was right there, and despite the instant and massive protest from Bologna's players he pointed to the penalty spot. Higuain calmly slotted home, Bologna picked up yet another yellow for dissent (it was their fifth of the match), and Napoli immediately started to press hard for a second.

Mertens nearly put Napoli up on 71 minutes on a free kick, with Curci only barely able to parry a shot curving away from him to the near post. Napoli had a hard time putting in another real threat for awhile after that, with Bologna stepping up the aggression in their defense. It would prove to be Napoli who found the go-ahead goal, though.

As the clock approached the 80th minute, Gokhan Inler was able to snag the ball in Napoli's half, and found Hamsik in space heading up near the left side of the center circle to launch a counter. The Slovak drove forward for a bit, carrying the ball in to the final third, then picked his head up and found Higuain sprinting down the center of the pitch. The cross was inch-perfect, and Higuain quickly flicked to Callejon, who was racing just past his right shoulder. From there it was a fairly simple finish for the Spaniard and Napoli were finally ahead.

As an aside, that goal was as good a display of counter-attacking football as you'll see anywhere. If you want to show someone an example of why playing for the counter can be both effective and attractive, pull up a highlight of that sequence and watch their jaw drop. It was amazing.

Sadly, that was not the last gasp of the match.

Bologna, down to ten men after Panagiotis Kone got himself sent off on a second yellow for being an idiot, found themselves with a corner as the clock ticked over to added time, went level as Bianchi somehow found himself free on the far side of the box to hammer the corner home. Federico Fernandez appeared to think that Bianchi got that space with a shove that should have been whistled, but the ref didn't see it, and the match would end at 2-2 as a result.

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It was a painful result, but one that will hopefully open some eyes among Napoli's higher-ups. Why Marek Hamsik didn't start is mystifying at best, especially when you look at how massive of an impact his being brought on had. You could argue that Lorenzo Insigne should have started as well, but both Callejon and Mertens had fine matches and Lorenzo probably needed the rest to some degree.

What also is troubling is the lack of any defensive reinforcements. Raul Albiol has had a fine season, and has formed a good partnership with Federico Fernandez of late. But he had a poor match today (which he's allowed to do, it happens to everyone), and Fernandez is just not good enough to carry the load when that happens.

Napoli is in desperate need of a defensive upgrade alongside Albiol, and it not only hasn't happened, but there's been little indication of late that it's even possible. Obviously rumors of defenders don't draw eyeballs as well as rumors of attackers or midfielders, but there's been near zero talk of any kind about reinforcements for the back line. Hopefully what we saw today might get things moving in the right direction on that front.

Either way, Napoli need to stop dropping points against relegation fodder if they're going to be serious about pushing for the scudetto, or even second place. This result leaves them four points back from Roma, and just three points ahead of Fiorentina after they beat up on Catania today. Do better, Napoli, or things could get ugly.

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