The story is all too familiar by now: a breakdown at the back, lacklustre play going forward, and dropped points to an inferior side. The faces change, but the verse stays the same.
Napoli 1 Albiol 88'
Chievo Verona 1 Sardo 18'
The match started off with Napoli on the front foot, pushing forward and trying to find cracks in Chievo's packed-in defense. Unfortunately, their early efforts rarely came to more than a half-chance, with the only good opportunities falling to Dries Mertens, who had two close-but-not-quite-there chances in the first twelve minutes of the match. Chievo had a couple of half chances off counters themselves, but they never really looked like threatening.
Then, 18 minutes in, the defense just fell asleep.
Local boy Gennaro Sardo cut in from his right wing-back position, played a 1-2 at the top of the box with Cyril Thereau, then calmly slotted past a diving Rafael. The goal seemed to catch fans offhand, but looking at the replays it's easy to see how it happened; no less than five Napoli midfielders and defenders were in position to affect the buildup to Chievo's goal, be it by closing down Sardo, getting in to his passing lanes, or generally trying to do anything useful. Instead, they got caught apparently ball-watching and didn't do much of anything.
We've gotten all too used to seeing Napoli push hard for a goal after surrendering one on a cheap bit of play, but that extra verve was concerningly absent after Chievo's opener today. It took almost ten minutes for them to put together much of another attack. Jose Callejon, working from the left, took the ball and drove in to the box, unleashing a cross/shot to the far post that just got by the keeper. Gonzalo Higuain streaked in to apply a simple finish for the equalizer... but somehow messed it all up from all of a yard away and put the ball completely across the goal instead. It was truly one of the worst misses you'll see this season.
Mertens would pop up with another chance on 35 minutes, but was unable to do more than rattle the post. Otherwise, it seemed like Chievo was the better side (as much as that hurts to type), shutting down Napoli's attacks with a compact defense, and causing stress when they got forward on counters. That's the way it was all the way to the first-half whistle, and the end of the half seemed more a relief than anything else.
The second half started brightly for Napoli, with Marek Hamsik earning a corner via a scorched shot from outside the box. The corner ultimately fell to Raul Albiol, who had space and time in the box, with the goal at his mercy... and he promptly tried to kick the ball out of the stadium.
Jorginho would get his Napoli debut in the 60th minute, when Rafa Benitez put him on for a disappointing Blerim Dzemaili. He would have some affect on the match, as he has a positive impact on midfield possession, which had largely gone wasting before he came on.
A few minutes after the new signing came on, Napoli would have a stretch of play that saw several chances, with Dries Mertens again at the center of them. First came a free kick that saw Mertens strike the post for a second time after completely freezing Christian Puggioni in goal. The Belgian attacker came agonizingly close again moments later, with Puggioni being forced to punch away a hard shot at his near post for a corner.
That spell saw Cheivo start drawing themselves ever deeper in to their own box, soon basically keeping ten men in the box with just one man even pretending to attack. We also saw a parade of time wasting, with every bit of contact milked out to kill as much of the clock as possible. Rafa finally responded to Chievo's negative tactics in the 80th minute, withdrawing an ineffective defender in Maggio and chucking on Lorenzo Insigne in the first real "go for it" effort we've seen from the manager this season.
While it didn't come from Insigne, his bulldog play would help Napoli finally find an equalizer. One of his runs down the right ultimately forced a corner, and after pinging around the box, the ball again found Raul Albiol as the clock struck the 88th minute. This time he wouldn't be denied, and he struck home on a half-volley to bring Napoli level. That sparked off a desperate run of play as Napoli pushed everyone forward to find a winner before the final whistle before the three minutes of extra time expired.
Chances would fall to Insigne, Mertens, and Callejon, but Napoli couldn't make enough of them in the end. Despite their manager getting sent off for timewasting late in extra time, Chievo was able to hold just firm enough to escape with the draw.
This is a continuation of a trend that is now beyond concerning. If Napoli is going to continue to challenge for the top places in the league and hold off Fiorentina's charge, they have to stop dropping points against the worst clubs in the league. The list of disappointments has grown far too long for any kind of comfort, and things need to get turned around fast before things start to slip away.
The worst part isn't that their opponents are getting lucky goals to get these results; in each of these matches, you can find examples of breakdowns in concentration and tactics that lead to Napoli leaking goals, and then they just can't put together enough of a push going forward to reliably break down their opposition. The return of Marek Hamsik should help that somewhat once he gets back to form, but that needs to happen quickly if Napoli are going to correct this negative momentum they've built up for themselves.