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A Comedy Of Errors: Napoli 3 - Udinese 3

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With a do-or-die Champions League match against Arsenal looming in midweek and Juve pulling away at the top of the Serie A table, today's match against Udinese was vital. Unfortunately, things did not go as swimmingly as they should have.

This is a thing that happened. Oh, Pandev...
This is a thing that happened. Oh, Pandev...
Giuseppe Bellini

With Marek Hamsik still out, Pablo Armero still terrible, and Valon Behrami and Pepe Reina carrying knocks, Rafa Benitez rung the changes, handing debuts to Anthony Réveillère and Rafael, as well as rotating Blerim Džemaili in for the day. Despite some wanting to see Dries Mertens given a chance in the middle behind Gonzalo Higuain, Goran Pandev was given a chance to continue the excellent performance he had in the second half against Lazio.

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Udinese, fresh off a seaside stroll according to the commentators, saw the better run of the pitch in the early going, though Zelko Brkic decided to make life interesting for the Zebrette faithful in the sixth minute, coming out to claim a ball in to the box, but deciding to punch it at the last second instead. He lined it up poorly, though, and just barely avoided putting the ball in to his own net. Unfortunately, the ensuing corner for Napoli lead to nothing.

Not to be outdone, Rafael had his own moment of insanity just a minute later. After collecting an easy backpass, the young Brazilian got a little lazy with the ball and almost put it across the line for an own goal, saving it only at the very last second. Of course, he then nearly handed the ball to Nico Lopez, starting up top for Udinese in place of Antonio Di Natale, inside his own six yard box.

Fortunately, Rafael grew in to the match after his early comedy. Two dangerous Udinese attacks were stopped by him, first scooping up a dangerous through ball from Gabriel Silva with Lopez bearing down on him, and a few minutes later getting just enough on a shot across his goal to tip it around the post for a corner. Unfortunately, his defense did little to help him, with Fernandez getting turned about in circles by Lopez, Réveillère looking very much like someone making his first appearance with his club, and Albiol and Maggio generally looking exhausted. Albiol getting booked on a rash challenge on Nico Lopez didn't help matters any.

Enter Goran Pandev.

After spending the first 35 minutes being mostly anonymous, Pandev reminded Udinese that he was on the pitch in a loud way. After Insigne sent in a corner to the top of the area in the 38th minute, Fernandez fired in on a half-volley. The ball went straight to Pandev, lurking on the right side of the six yard box, who managed to poke the ball through three defenders and in to the net. It looked like the unlikeliest of goals, so much so that even Pandev looked a little sheepish in his celebration, but three minutes later it would be all swagger for the Macedonian.

In the 40th minute, Higuain collected the ball at the edge of the box and drove in strongly to the byline. From there he centered the ball to Pandev, who turned and calmly slotted home to put Napoli up 2-0, largely against the run of play. Unfortunately, they wouldn't be able to get to halftime clean, as Thomas Heurtaux managed to get a free header during a scrum in the box on a later corner, and a desperate Fernandez attempt at a clearance ultimately got turned past Rafael for an own goal.

The second half started much like the first for Napoli. Fernandez was booked early on for a sloppy challenge on Gabriel Silva that saw him arrive late, meaning that both of Napoli's central defenders were carrying yellows. Pandev joined them in the book several minutes later after throwing a bit of an elbow while going up for a header, making things a little nervy for Benitez and company as they started to consider substitutions.

After the 60th minute, things started to heat up a bit. Udinese drove down Napoli's right flank in the 64th minute, but once Andrea Lazzari got to the edge of the box, he fired well wide rather than trying to get past Maggio. After working the ensuing goal kick off the pitch, Pandev fed a lovely ball to Jose Callejon on the left at the edge of the area, who cut in, lined it up on his right foot, and... fired tamely right at Brkic.

Udinese would make the first substitution, with Francisco Guidolin making the aggressive decision to take off one of his defenders, Heurtaux, and bring on another attacking mid in Mago in the 68th minute. That decision paid immediate dividends, as Bruno Fernandes was able to float in to space opened up by a moment of confusion as Napoli tried to figure out who would cover the new Brazilian. Once he was there, he calmly lined himself up and fired a cannon shot past Rafael, who almost seemed to lose track of the ball mid-flight, to equalize.

Napoli fans wouldn't have to wait long for a response, though. Just two minutes later, an aggressive bit of play found Higuain alone on the left, where he fired at goal. Brkic would be able to parry it away, but the ball fell at Džemaili's feet, who fired it in to take back the lead. Mago tried to respond shortly after with a thunderous shot of his own, but Rafael was ready for this one.

Pandev wouldn't get the chance to complete his hat trick, getting subbed off for Dries Mertens in the 74th minute, who immediately made his presence felt with a superb through ball to an onrushing Insigne. Unfortunately, Insigne couldn't get the ball past Brkic, though it took a tremendous save to deny him. Benitez used his second sub a few minutes later after Džemaili picked up a yellow, bringing on Valon Behrami for Dzei. Like Mertens, Behrami's presence was also quickly felt, but not in a good way; he lost his mark on Basta on a corner, and the Udinese wing back took that opportunity to slot home an equalizer. Napoli's defense of comedy really was in fine form today.

Because no Italian match is complete without a little controversy, Napoli was given a massive gift two minutes after Udinese equalized. Mago , who was really a terror from the moment he stepped on the pitch, was in a breakaway with only Rafael to beat, was pulled back by Maggio and then hooked on the ensuing tackle at the edge of the box. Both were clear fouls, which would have meant Maggio being sent off under the circumstances. Somehow, inexplicably, the ref swallowed his whistle, which only served to enrage Guidolin and Udinese. Guidolin was so upset that he stormed on to the pitch, getting himself sent off in the process.

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In the end, it was a deceptively dire match for a 3-3 draw, and a blow to Napoli's chances in Serie A. Napoli were largely outplayed, but all three of the goals they surrendered came on bad errors, with Fernandez's botched clearance, Rafael horribly misreading a long shot, and Behrami forgetting how to mark on corners. After the Sassuolo and Parma results, this match looks to be setting a concerning trend for Rafa Benitez and Napoli in Serie A. There have been too many let downs in recent weeks, and with Juventus coming in to form and Roma still looking strong, things need to get fixed, fast, if Napoli is going to contend for the scudetto this season.