A nervy back-and-forth affair saw Napoli impress greatly on the break as we're used to seeing by now, but a rocky display on defense kept Inter in the match much longer than they should have been. Luckily, an improved second half display and a fortunate red card for the visitors was all that was needed to see the match out.
Napoli 4: Higuain 9', Mertens 38', Dzemaili 42', Callejon 81'
Inter 2: Cambiasso 36', Nagatomo 45+2'
The match did not start out well for Napoli. The shaky defense of recent weeks showed up yet again, and Inter clearly had the upper hand in the first stretch of the match. Rodrigo Palacio had the first chance of the match, latching on to a pretty ball over the top and heading it over the bar. Thankfully for Napoli, he started his run a beat too early and was offside, but that was the first of a series of mistakes by the defense that would plague the first half.
Fortunately, Napoli has Gonzalo Higuain, who cares not at all about that pesky "run of play" thing. On Napoli's first real foray in to Inter's box, Pipita latched on to a loose ball on the half-volley and hammered it home from sixteen yards out. It was a beautiful strike by the Argentine, and helped shift the momentum to Napoli's favor for awhile.
The shaky defense would rear it's head again, though, giving Inter chance after chance as the match started going end-to-end. It seemed like nobody in a Napoli jersey was capable of tracking runs, and that would come back to bite them hard in the 36th minute.
Recovering from an.... unfortunate hit by the ball when trying (and succeeding) to block a Blerim Dzemaili long ball just a couple minutes earlier, Esteban Cambiasso found himself free at the far post on the right side of Napoli's defense. A low cross found him with the ball at his feet with acres of space, and he did not waste his chance, putting the ball past Rafael easily to equalize.
That seemed to wake up the sleeping partenopei, though, and Dries Mertens responded almost instantly, getting the ball from a lovely Dzemaili run at the top of the box and blasting a rocket past Samir Handanovic to put Napoli back up. The match continued to be a back-and-forth affair, but Napoli would again get the better of Inter on a counter. Mertens struck a low shot from Handanovic's left side that the the Slovenian could only parry, and the ball wound up at the feet of a late-arriving Dzemaili for an easy finish and a 3-1 lead in the 42nd minute.
If you thought that would be it for the first half, though, you would be sadly wrong.
Another terrible display of defending in the box saw Albiol do nothing to stop Fredy Guarin from from unleashing a shot deep in the box that Rafael couldn't corral, allowing the ball to sneak through to the far post and Yuto Nagatomo, who had completely slipped the attention of Christian Maggio. The Japanese international's goal was just the highlight of a horrorshow first half for Maggio, who also failed to track Cambiasso on his goal, and had a number of other hair-pulling moments throughout the half.
The second half started much like the run of the first, with Napoli looking poor in defense. Maggio was again skinned on an Inter attacking move in the box, but this time Albiol was there to bail out the right back. That sprung a counter for Napoli that saw Mertens burst up the left side and feed a lovely ball to Higuain near the far post, but an inch-perfect tackle from former Napoli loanee Rolando cleared away the danger.
Lorenzo Insigne would create his own good chance on another counter on 54 minutes, driving down the left again and firing off a cross/shot that Handanovic did brilliantly to keep from getting to Higuain, who had ghosted to the far post.
Inter would see the lion's share of the chances for the next spell of the match, causing a lot of tense moments for Napoli fans. The most dangerous was an Inter breakaway that saw Fredy Guarin get free and receive a cross. Rafael did brilliantly to come out and save it despite Guarin being literally in his face, with Maggio also charging in for a last-ditch tackle. The three-way collision left both Rafael and Maggio down for several minutes, with both Roberto Colombo and Pepe Reina warming up just in case Rafael had to come out.
The match would be completely changed shortly afterwards, however. Ricky Alvarez, who had been booked a minute in to the second half after a clumsy challenge on Insigne, was shown a second yellow for a handball and dismissed, but to Mazzarri's dismay. Whether or not a booking was the correct call (it was clearly a handball, but any intent is questionable at best), it's the decision that was made, and Inter would have to spend the next twenty minutes a man short.
Rafa Benitez responded to the change in circumstances by pulling off Higuain, who had been struggling a bit with an ankle knock picked up shortly after his goal, in favor of Valon Behrami. Behrami would add extra steel to the midfield beside a largely unimpressive Gokhan Inler, allowing Dzemaili to push up behind Insigne, Mertens, and Jose Callejon. That tactic had a high potential to wreak havoc on the Inter back line, and was a worthwhile risk to take while up a man.
The move would pay off in short order, with Insigne making a lethal run to the left post and crossing for Callejon, who was utterly unmarked and was left with a simple finish to put the home team up 4-2 with less than ten minutes to go. That lovely effort allowed Napoli the breathing room they needed to really turn the screws, building more and more pressure on the Inter backline, including a sliding Mertens shot that just fizzed past the right hand post.
That would prove to be Mertens' last involvement in the match, with the Belgian being removed in favor of Pablo Armero, who was stationed high up the left win to fire in crosses in to the box. Mertens deserved the chance to receive applause from the home crowd, as he had enjoyed probably his best match since arriving in Naples last summer.
Both sides would threaten, but nothing ever came terribly close to another goal, much to the relief of the scoreboard operators. The best chance was a patented Dzemaili shot from the top of the box that Handanovic turned over the top of the bar, but with the keeper's position, the shot was never going in.
Goran Pandev was brought in during extra time for what seemed like a few token minutes against his former club, but was felled on his first touch in the box for a penalty. He then insisted on taking it, forcing away Insigne (who had more than earned a goal with his performance), and promptly messed the whole thing up, shooting tamely for an easy Handanovic save. That move did not earn the Macedonian many admirers.
The last moments of the match passed without much incident, and Napoli left with a deserved, if nervous, win. They badly needed these three points to keep up with Juventus and Roma, and they did exactly what they had to do. It would have been nice to get a modicum of defensive competence, but fortunately the attack was more than up to the task of unlocking Mazzarri's squad.
Now there's just one match to go before the Serie A holiday break and the transfer window. Forza Napoli, and let's keep this ball rolling.