A bright last 30 minutes couldn't overturn Napoli's nightmarish first hour of the match, and Napoli couldn't pull any closer to the top two teams in Serie A after finishing today's match against Empoli with a 2-2 draw.
Things got off to a decent enough start, with Napoli holding the majority of possession early and spending as much time in the final third as anywhere else in the pitch. They struggled to convert the opportunities that possession and presence up the pitch offered them, though, and what few chances they were able to put together got snuffed out by Luigi Sepe in goal.
Empoli put in a resilient display in defense, and looked threatening on the counter as they have so often this season. They caused Napoli concern a few times in the early stages of the match, but it was Napoli shooting themselves in the foot that caused the first major headache.
Napoli had earned a corner just before the clock struck 18 minutes gone when Faouzi Ghoulam stung Sepe's gloves from a half-volley. It looked at first that Napoli might be able to get something out of the corner, but ultimately it fizzled out thanks to some strong defending... and then, inexplicably, almost none of Napoli's defense got back to cover.
Empoli launched a counter almost unopposed through where several Napoli players should have been, but none of Christian Maggio, Henrique Buss, or Jorginho were anywhere near the play. That gave Massimo Maccarone and Simone Verdi an clean shot at goal, and they didn't waste the chance. Maccarone slipped Verdi through the last sliver of Napoli's defense, and Rafael didn't do as well as he should have done in trying to stop Verdi's shot.
Napoli seemed shell-shocked by what had happened, and it took them a long time to grow back in to the match after going down to a side they seemed to think they had beat out of the tunnel. They struggled to put together coherent attacks for the rest of the half, and what few good attacks they did put together were snuffed out with shockingly little effort from Empoli. The match went to half time with the San Paolo crowd booing as Empoli were comfortably on top of the match.
The second half started with a little more vim and vigor from Napoli, with the partenopei looking more organized and pushing forward more readily for a goal. Empoli managed to get forward on a couple counter attacks, but by and large for the first several minutes of the half it was all Napoli.
Then one of Empoli's counters earned them a corner. Then Faouzi Ghoulam completely screwed up his attempt to clear that corner. Then Daniele Rugani fired that corner home. Just like that, the momentum kicked all the way back over again, from Napoli chasing a likely equalizer to "oh crap, we're down 2-0." Heads dropped, the crowd turned vicious, and for several minutes Napoli looked ready to just collapse and give in.
Rafa Benitez tried to change that just after the hour mark by subbing in Gonzalo Higuain for a disappointingly flat Marek Hamsik to inject more energy and a goalscoring threat to the side. While Higuain found influencing the match directly difficult, the attention his quality and his runs at goal demanded from Empoli opened up more space for others to work with. That came in handy a few minutes later when Napoli had a corner kick; Dries Mertens sent in the cross, and when part of Empoli's defense collapsed on to a decoy run from Higuain, Duvan Zapata stepped in to the space they left and hammered a header home.
That goal fired things in to high gear for Napoli. They started playing with significantly more verve and energy, driving forward with wild abandon and throwing Empoli off-balance. With Mertens' energy flagging, Rafa elected to take him off the pitch to keep that drive going, throwing the in-form Jonathan De Guzman on in his place. The sub paid off quickly; Empoli earned a corner when the change was made, but both of their fullbacks went down and ultimately came off the pitch for "injury treatment" in what was a blatantly obvious fit of timewasting. The ref refused to let them back on after Napoli cleared the corner with the ball still in play, and the resulting counter for the home side found De Guzman moving in to space near the penalty spot to finish a left-footed strike and bring the match level.
That sparked off an entertaining couple of minutes. Mario Rui, one of the "injured" Empoli fullbacks, was booked for timewasting while being subbed off. That set off Empoli manager Maruizio Sarri, who got in the assistant referee's face and was warned to shut up or head to the locker room. Then Sarri stomped over in to Napoli's technical area, where the referee was having a brief discussion with Rafa Benitez, and started whining some more, only to quickly be sent to the stands by the ref.
Losing their manager and having such a rapid turnaround in the scoreline left Empoli staggered, but they did what they do best in response: bunker up in to an extremely defensive shape and hold on for dear life. After making their first sub an attacking one when the score was 2-0, their last two subs when it was 2-2 were defensive in nature, and unfortunately Napoli couldn't find the answer to unlock the defense.
Zapata was having some success using his physicality to open up space, but cramps felled him just after the 80th minute. Rafa lacked another attacking sub, so went with Walter Gargano to better secure midfield just in case Empoli pulled together another attack. They didn't, and the match ran itself out to a draw.
Even with the impressive comeback, it's hard not to feel bitter about this match. The story was almost too predictable: Napoli face team that's good on the counter and on set pieces, the partenopei's two weaknesses. Napoli comes out playing cocky against that team. Napoli gives up stupid goals to that team and drops points. It's an extremely frustrating result, especially with the chance that Napoli had to gain points on Juventus and Roma. It's the rare weekend that both of Napoli's title rivals drop points, so failing to take advantage is unforgivable.
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Henrique, Ghoulam; Lopez, Jorginho; Callejon, Hamsik (Higuain 61'), Mertens (De Guzman 70'); Zapata (Gargano 83')
Goals: Zapata 66', De Guzman 72'
Empoli: Sepe; Hysaj, Rugani, Tonelli, Mario Rui (Barba 73'); Croce (Laxalt 61'), Valdifiori, Vecino; Verd (Zielinski 78'); Tavano, Maccarone
Goals: Verdi 19', Rugani 53'