An unfortunate trend of Napoli playing down to their opposition continued today, as the hosts allowed a bevy of early chances to go wasting before Dries Mertens decided enough was enough and scored twice in ten minutes early in the second half. That would be enough for Napoli to see off the challenge presented by Sampdoria, but it was not without its nervy moments.
Napoli 2 Mertens 54', 62'
The opening favored Napoli by and large, as they seemed to enjoy the brighter possession and majority of chances. After Rafael stopped everyone's hearts with some terrifying sweeper-keeper play in the second minute, Napoli had the first scoring opportunity as Gonzalo Higuain ran down the left side of Sampdoria's box and picked out a running Dries Mertens in front of goal. The pass was a tick behind the Belgian, however, and Mertens wasn't able to sort it out of his feet before the moment was gone.
Mertens would pop up again and again in the earl going, with two more scoring chances in the first ten minutes, and a beautiful service to Higuain on eleven minutes for a volley right in front of goal. The Argentine had a simple finish to make, but could only put it straight at the keeper.
That opened a period of more open play for both sides, including an offsides goal for the visitors on a counter. Sampdoria's best threats were continuously on the break, as they were repeatedly able to take advantage of a Napoli midfield that was slow to transition for some reason. The back line was up to the task, however, and were generally able to prevent any real danger from forming.
Jose Callejon had a gorgeous chance go wasting just after the 20th minute, after a tough slaloming run brought him in to the penalty area. He unleashed a chipped shot meant to hit the top right corner, but his finish betrayed him and he couldn't keep the ball down.
Samp continued to threaten on the counter, with slow Napoli transitions back becoming an unfortunate theme, especially from Blerim Dzemaili. One particular counter saw Angelo Palombo put Nenad Krsticic through with a ball that would have put the Serbian midfielder around Rafael with just a simple finish to make, but a poor first touch sent the ball safely out.
Napoli had a pair of chances just past the half-hour mark. Mertens continued his strong play with a great run and shot from the left side, but Angelo Da Costa had his near post well covered. Higuain would also burst down the left, Napoli's preferred angle of attack in the first half, and had the goal at his mercy after cutting in past the last defender, but his shot went well wide of everything.
The rest of the first half would pass largely uneventfully, aside from two chippy yellows for each club. The second half started off much the same, aside from Anthony Reveillere, who had had a quiet but competent match, coming off just four minutes in for Pablo Armero. No injury was obvious, but one was widely speculated given the timing of the sub.
In the 54th minute, Mertens decided that he had had quite enough of Napoli's inability to score in this match. A break saw Higuain collect the ball on the right and drive in towards the byline, but he pulled up and centered back to the Belgian, who was lurking in space in front of goal. Merten's shot with his first touch on the driven cross and put the ball past a diving Da Costa to finally, blissfully, put Napoli ahead.
Sampdoria would come painfully close to equalizing a few minutes later. Manolo Gabbiadini found himself with acres of space on Napoli's left with Armero nowhere in sight and fired off a shot that beat Rafael, but was only held back by the crossbar. Samp would have a penalty should a few minutes later when Vasco Regini crumpled at the top of the box under contact from Armero, but the referee was having nothing of it (and replays showed it was the right decision as any contact was minimal and highly exaggerated). The resulting counter looked potent, but was left wasting by a poor pass from Dzemaili at the edge of the box. This was probably Dzei's worst match in several months, unfortunately.
Mertens was having nothing of poor fortune, however. In the 62nd minute, standing over the ball alongside Lorenzo Insigne on a free kick just outside the left side of the box, Mertens stepped up and beat Da Costa with a simple shot to the near post. It wasn't a terribly difficult shot to save as far as placement or power, but the Belgian had caught the keeper cheating a bit towards the far post without much coverage to the near side and took full advantage.
That second goal seemed to wake up Napoli's attack in a big way, as they started pressing forward with abandon, with additional chances coming for Mertens, Insigne, Callejon, and Higuain. There was some danger at the back, however; Gianluca Sansone in particular gave a huge scare when he beat Armero easily down the left, cut in, and unleashed a shot that rattled both posts before coming back out and in to the arms of an obviously relieved Rafael.
With the match fairly well in hand, Rafa Benitez saw fit to give a run to both Duvan Zapata and Josep Radosevic, both players in need of as much playing time as possible. Neither would have much of an impact in the remainder of the proceedings, though Zapata did have a hand in setting up Callejon's last gasp at getting a goal for himself before being subbed off for Radosevic.
Samp wouldn't go quietly in to the night; in the 93rd minute, they'd put up one last desperate chance at a goal, and in a scrum right in front of Rafael's goal they nearly had it twice. Rafael did well to keep the ball out, though, and his defense did just enough to keep Sampdoria from getting another shot off the rebound.
While the team performance on a whole left much to be desired, this was easily the best performance we've seen yet from Dries Mertens. The Belgian attacker was at the center of almost every Napoli opportunity, and was truly unfortunate not to end the match with a hat trick. Still, Benitez and company will gladly take his brace, and three vital points. Napoli now stand just two points off Roma in the battle for second, and have a run of matches coming up that they should be able to take full points from without too much problem. Hopefully Mertens' performance serves to kick-start the club in the new year.