A bizarre lineup from Napoli lead to a disjointed performance from the partenopei against Athletic Bilbao, and thanks to that they head to Spain with a dire need to score and win the match, as their opponents nabbed an all-important away goal.
Napoli started out the match on the front foot, with Marek Hamsik coming close on a pair of chances early on, and Lorenzo Insigne whiffing on the volley from a near-perfect ball over the top from Jorginho. When Athletic had the ball, Napoli were able to disrupt, slow down, and otherwise prevent their guests from creating too much of a danger.
Napoli were never quite able to find their finishing touch, though, as every chance just seemed to fizzle in to nothingness. Even set-pieces saw failed connections or balls just sent over the bar instead of dipping down as planned. That gave Bilbao the chance to grow in to the match, and grow in to it they did.
From roughly the 25th minute on, Bilbao started enforcing more and more of their will on to the match. They took full advantage of the fact that Walter Gargano was consistently out of position in midfield, waltzing through his zone time and again and forcing the ball to their right wing, where Miguel Britos was struggling mightily at right back. That combination of second-stringers would come to leave Napoli in a very bad way just before the half.
In the 41st minute, Oscar De Marcos ran free down Napoli's left flank as Britos had tucked in to the box and didn't come out wide to challenge the fullback's cross, meaning De Marcos had all the time he wanted and then some to set himself, pick out his target, and fire away. He centered the ball perfectly for Bilbao's star player, Iker Muniain, who had run free through the middle while Gargano stayed high up the pitch for no apparent reason. Jorginho could have helped, but he was tracking the run of Mikel Rico, who was moving towards the far post. That left Muniain to Gargano, who was nowhere to be seen, and the attacker calmly slotted in to the corner past a diving Rafael Cabral.
The goal was as big a disaster as Napoli could face; not only did it put them down just before half time with the momentum of the match already against them, it gave Bilbao an all-important away goal heading in to their home leg of the tie. That put all the pressure squarely on Napoli, and it's sad to say that they didn't really rise to the occasion like they should have.
Athletic again had the best chances early in the second half, including a chance that Aduriz just put wide. It looked at first that he was offside, but he was held on by Raul Albiol, who was slow to get back in to position after making a poor clearance.
Poor clearances were a theme for Napoli on the day, with Albiol, Callejon, Britos, and Gargano all making agonizingly poor efforts to get the ball out of danger. Another theme was offsides, with Higuain and Callejon especially to blame there, killing several chances by simply mistiming their runs and leaving themselves well behind Bilbao's line when the pass is made. Napoli had six chances whistled away for offsides, where Athletic had none. That shocking difference in discipline was indicative of the day on a whole, unfortunately.
Gonzalo Higuain was not offside, however, come the 68th minute, when he latched on to the ball, drove in to the box from the right, and unleashed an unstoppable shot in to the low corner of goal. It was the exact kind of special moment that Higuain is capable of, creating something out of nothing and hurling his side back in to the match against the odds.
Higuain almost set up a second goal moments later, putting Jose Callejon through on goal with only the keeper to beat, but the Spaniard fluffed up his finish and pushed the ball wide instead of putting a simply chip over the low-diving keeper. That kicked off a sustained spell of Napoli quality, though, with several more chances in rapid succession coming from the home side, who seemed to have finally awakened and realized the situation they were in.
Napoli had another glorious chance in the 81st minute go agonizingly wasting; Michu was left all alone on the penalty spot and was found by Higuain with the goal at his mercy to a simple finish.... but he inexplicably played a square ball off to Callejon, who looked shocked and couldn't get a shot off in time. The lack of incisiveness was shocking to see from Michu, and his teammates all looked absolutely stunned that he had passed off such an easy chance.
A fantastic run by Dries Mertens a few minutes later very nearly lead to another goal for Higuain, but Iraizoz was on top of his game and made a brilliant save to deny the Argentine striker. At first it looked as though Higuain had simply wasted the chance, but Iraizoz played it absolutely perfectly to deny Higuain's shot.
There would be no more big chances for Napoli; Rafael made a nice save and launched an excellent counter late in extra time, but Bilbao stopped it with a foul and the last-gasp free kick lead to nothing. They head to Spain with the scoreline even, but Bilbao sporting a pair of huge advantages in playing the second leg on home soil, and with an away goal in hand.
It's going to be a massively difficult task for Napoli to win this one, one made all the harder by the tactical decisions made by Rafa Benitez today. Starting Gargano and Britos is one (unforgivable) thing, but keeping them in for the full 90 when they were so utterly ineffective and harmful to Napoli's chances is idiocy of the highest order. Suggesting that someone who works as hard as Gokhan Inler is neither fit nor ready for such an important match is insulting to the intelligence of Napoli fans, and not using the speed and energy of Faouzi Ghoulam down the flank as a late sub against a tiring Bilbao side is foolish at best.
Rafa needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror, because the failure of this result is squarely on his shoulders.
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Britos; Jorginho, Gargano; Insigne (Mertens 60'), Hamsik (Michu 78'), Callejon; Higuain
Goal: Higuain (68' assist Hamsik)
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Gurpegi, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe (Moran 89'), Mikel Rico; Susaeta (Gomez 80'), Benat (San Jose 75'), Muniain; Aduriz
Goal: Muniain 41' (assist De Marcos)