2014 seems to be going quite well for Napoli thus far. First a victory over Sampdoria to end their unbeaten run under Siniša Mihajlović. Now, a win against Hellas Verona, at the fortress that is the Bentegodi. Oh, and Lorenzo Insigne finally scored his first goal in this Serie A season.
The only thing that could've made this Sunday better would've been had Genoa showed some teeth, or Cagliari managed to hold on for a draw against Juventus. Instead, the partenopei remain ten points out of first and three out of second, that lovely, coveted spot where the Champions League is assured.
But let's move on to happier thoughts, shall we?
Sunday's match began in a terrifying manner, with the hosts taking seemingly hundreds of shots at (our) Rafael's goal. Federico Fernández didn't do much to help matters, letting the Verona players in behind or failing in attempts to win the ball. Rômulo and Juan Manuel Iturbe were linking up well; Jorginho and Luca Toni not so well. When Toni did manage to receive the ball, the normally solid forward misplaced his shots.
Credit to (our) Rafael, however. He looked a different man than the keeper who started against Udinese. A few games under his belt and now he's coming out to punch away shots and smother strikes. A lesser performance from the young goalkeeper and this could've been a totally different result.
Napoli, as is their want, broke through against the run of play. The pass came up from the back to Gonzalo Higuaín, who held off the Verona defense as Dries Mertens came charging up the left. Pipito slid the ball over to the Belgian, who cooly finished into the bottom right corner, notching his third goal in two games.
As the match progressed into the second half, it became more and more evident why teams hate coming to the Bentegodi (besides the hostile reception, that is). Andrea Mandorlini has his side playing relentless, attacking football...and when your own side has, shall we say, issues at the back, it's downright terrifying.
But somehow Napoli held on. How? Well, besides (our) Rafael, it's not really clear. Pablo Armero was useless once more, slowing down the attack and once setting up Iturbe for a shot on goal. Gokhan Inler seemed to forget that one of his roles was to protect the defense, although he did better in the second half.
Christian Maggio, however, played what was probably his best game in the last two seasons. The right back was everywhere, covering on the left, challenging the Verona attackers, and generally making sure it was difficult for the hosts to get in a good shot. Perhaps he's finally readjusted to life as a rightback?
Oh, and let's not forget Maggio's role in the second goal. Executing a perfect counter attack, Maggio took off down the right, flying through the gialloblu bodies to roll over for Insigne. Illustrious, on just five minutes, tapped in to finally break his duck.
We'll get into this more indepth this week (aside from Twitter rantings and comments in game threads) but the match was utterly changed when Goran Pandev came off for Insigne. The Macedonian was dreadful, probably the worst player on the pitch, ballooning a chance from close range and generally looking clueless. After Insigne's introduction, the attack flowed freely, with the players interchanging positions and zipping up the pitch.
It helped, too, that for the second goal Armero stayed back in defense, so his passes didn't cause anyone to need to hit the reverse button.
With 15 minutes left to play, Verona were well and truly beaten. Insigne tried for a brace, but (their) Rafael was able to beat away the shot. However, Blerim Džemaili was on hand, ready to bury Napoli's third.
All in all, some positives today -- Insigne getting off the ground, getting away from the Bentegodi with an impressive win, the impressive counter attack in the final thirty minutes. Still a few things to worry about, but let's end this on a high, shall we? A win. Unbeaten in 2014. Two clean sheets in a row. Atalanta in the Coppa, Bologna and Chievo up next. And nearly three weeks left to prop up the squad.
Forza Napoli Sempre!