Today was... disappointing. Frustrating. Annoying. Aggravating. Insert your negative adjective of choice here, because it probably fits.
Playing against Atalanta in Bergamo has never been a fun thing for Napoli to do, and today was no exception. Napoli dominated possession in a big way (some measures had them at 80% at one point late in the first half), but with Atalanta playing thugball and the ref mostly letting them get away with it, capitalizing on that possession proved very, very difficult.
It's not even like Atalanta were particularly threatening. They'd occasionally get forward, but one of David Lopez, Faouzi Ghoulam, or Kalidou Koulibaly would inevitably nick the ball away and Napoli would be off to the races again. Every time, though, Napoli's attack would inevitably stall out, generally due to something that Dries Mertens, Jose Callejon, or Christian Maggio did, as all three were very poor in attack today.
The second half started as more of the same. Napoli on the front foot, Atalanta just keeping the cutting edge at bay... and then something crazy happened. Atalanta got forward, and Cristian Raimondi lofted a cross on for German Denis... a cross that Raul Albiol completely misread and misplayed in the air, giving Denis all the opportunity he needed to take his shot and put Atalanta ahead.
It was sudden, it was stunning, and it's exactly the kind of goal that Napoli have been giving up all season. Napoli dominate the run of play, a defender (too often Albiol) makes a mistake, and boom, the other side have a goal. That it was Denis doing the scoring, and literally on Atalanta's only shot on target all match long, just added to the "well of course that happened" factor.
Then came the bizarre decisions from Rafa Benitez, something that's become far too normal this season. His first substitution was to put on Lorenzo Insigne, which made a lot of sense. Both Callejon and Mertens were struggling mightily, so taking one of them off was understandable. Instead, Marek Hamsik was taken off, who had been by far Napoli's best thing going in attack.
Now, there's an argument to be made that resting your star a bit before a big match at the weekend makes sense. But when there's less than half an hour left in a match that you're losing on the road with your job on the line and a disappointing season in the rear view mirror, you keep your best player on the pitch, period. End of story. There should be no debate here. But, Rafa's gonna Rafa, and suddenly Napoli's attack had lots of drive, but very little creativity. There were several moments when Insigne tried to play things off with Mertens that would have worked beautifully with how Hamsik played today, but instead fell flat or ended in a turnover.
Then Rafa put on Jorginho on, which gave Napoli's attack a spark it badly needed after Hamsik was taken off. The player removed, though, was David Lopez, who had been in wonderful form today. It was little wonder that when Inler, who wasn't playing nearly so well, was asked to play more defensively, Atalanta started putting together more dangerous possession.
The saddest part is that mind-numbing substitution decisions like these aren't even surprising any more. When it comes to Rafa, it's the status quo. His personnel decisions are just as much a problem as some of the tactical/systemic issues that have plagued Napoli this season, and if he gets fired, they'll play as big a part in it as anything else.
Back to the match, though. Napoli kept kicking at the door over and over again, and a Mertens cross found Callejon literally at the edge of the goal line. Then, somehow, some way, Callejon managed to take what should have been a tap-in at the most (if not just "lemme stick my foot out and let the ball bang off it") and sent the ball way over the bar. From about two feet away. Remember that really bad Fernando Torres sky-over with Chelsea a couple years back? This was worse.
Insigne kept pulling the attack long by the shoestrings, however, and it wasn't long before they found success. Minutes after Luca Cigarini was sent off for a second yellow card, Lorenzo found Higuain with his back to goal on the penalty spot, and one awesome turn and blast later, Napoli were even. After we've seen Higuain struggle with his turns some this season (which was odd, since he was so good at them last year), seeing him hit one so smoothly and effectively was great to see, as was the note-perfect pass from Insigne that set him up. With two defenders behind Higuain, most players wouldn't have made that pass, instead looking to Callejon's run in to the box on the far side. Insigne had faith that Pipita would get the job done, though, and did he ever.
One more chance would come for Napoli: Duvan Zapata won a penalty deep in stoppage time when Guglielmo Stendaro bowled him over in the box while a cross from Callejon was on its way to the Colombian. Higuain stepped up with a chance to win it for Napoli, only to telegraph where he was sending the ball once again, pulling his shoulders and all but screaming to Marco Sportiello that he was going right. Sportiello made the save, and that was that.
Now comes the big question: how serious was Aurelio De Laurentiis about his "win nine points or else" ultimatum that he reportedly delivered to Rafa Benitez on Saturday? If it was serious, then Rafa will shortly be out of a job. While that might be harsh on the merits of today's performance, dropping points from matches with otherwise dominating displays against vastly lesser teams has become far too much of a pattern to be ignored since the Spaniard took over a year ago. If Rafa is let go, it won't be unjustified in the slightest.
There was also a huge missed opportunity for Napoli today. With Juventus, Udinese, and Sampdoria all losing, Napoli had an opportunity to move in to third place and blew it. They're still just a point behind AC Milan, Udinese, and Sampdoria, and have a goal differential advantage over the latter two, but being able to win a second straight match and end the day in third place before facing Roma this weekend would have been huge. Instead, now we're left to scratch out heads and figure out what to do next. That's been too frequent occurrence this season.
Atalanta: Sportiello; Benalouane, Stendardo, Cherubin, Del Grosso (Drame 80'); Raimondi (D'Alessandro 76'), Cigarini, Migliaccio; Baselli; Denis, Moralez (Carmona 87')
Goal: Denis 57'
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam (Zapata 90'); Inler, Lopez (Jorginho 75'); Mertens, Hamsik (Insigne 65'), Callejon; Higuain
Goal: Higuain 86'