Well. This didn't go as expected now, did it?
It was meant to be so simple, a match against a side that fell 7-0 at home to Inter Milan on Sunday. But Eusebio Di Francesco wised up, damn him. He made seven changes -- one for each goal, I guess -- and the Sassuolo that came to the San Paolo suddenly knew how to defend. Oh, and Gianluca Pegolo? Yeah, he knows how to stop goals, unlike Alberto Pomini.
This was all part of Walter Mazzarri's grand plan, I just know it.
Things seemed alright when Blerim Dzemaili broke the deadlock in the 14th minute. It wasn't a trademark blast from thirty yards that shot over Pegolo's head. Instead, the Swiss capitalized on a defensive error and took his shot from just outside the area, putting plenty of power behind the low strike.
Alas, Napoli's lead lasted all of seven minutes before conceding the first goal at the San Paolo this season. Jasmin Kurtic sent his pass directly between two camouflage shirts. Simone Zaza latched right on, slipping in a perfect shot that beat Pepe Reina at the near post.
And there went Napoli's perfect record. Despite plenty of pressure, Napoli just couldn't find a way to break through the Sassuolo defense. Gonzalo Higuaín would probably like someone to hold down Pegolo and let him have a chance to take a punch, for all the times the keeper stopped his shot. Strikes from Goran Pandev, Dries Mertens and Marek Hamšík were also rescued -- and that was just in the first half.
To be fair, Napoli weren't totally on top of their game, particularly at the back. Zaza had a shot cleared off the line in a last-moment bout of desperation from Giandomenico Mesto. Karim Laribi pounced on the rebound, but Reina was there to save. Perhaps making three changes to the back line -- including swapping out both center backs -- wasn't the best idea Rafa Benítez has ever had?
But defense aside, Napoli showed their quality -- they just could've used that extra bit of magic to get past a suddenly solid Sassuolo side. Mertens showed he could easily be a starter for most Serie A clubs, filling in for Lorenzo Insigne, who did come on with fifteen minutes left to play. Around the hour mark, José Callejón came on for Goran Pandev, and that extra bit of speed did trouble the neroverdi defense a bit more. A bit. Not enough.
We could talk about this match for hours, but when it comes down to it, Napoli underestimated their opponents. Di Francesco made intelligent decisions to counteract the effects of the Inter match, including benching Antonio Floro Flores, starting Zaza and revamping his backline. Kurtic was immense all night. Pegolo was a rock.
Now, with Genoa on deck, it's time to see if Rafa can learn similar lessons.