This hurts. This hurts a lot. There's no disguising that. The season has barely begun and Napoli have taken a body blow right out of the chute. Ugh.
The first half was brutal. There's not much of another way to describe it. Napoli came out flat and not showing much of a cohesive plan, seeming to be content to just hoof the ball up the pitch and see what happens. That works sometimes, but when you're playing a team that knows they cannot concede at any cost and your side isn't really set up to play that way, it leads to disjointed and poor attacking displays like we saw today.
Napoli had a handful of chances, but poor timing and finishing saw them all left wasting. It might have helped if Napoli tried to build up play with quick switching passes more often (you know, like they were so good at last season), but they just didn't, and it cost them going forward. What also didn't help was way too much loss of possession in midfield that allowed Bilbao to make quick counters that left Napoli fans sweating profusely.
The whole side just looked flat and disjointed, with few of the players actually appearing to work together. Jorginho was marked out thanks to a complete lack of support from Walter Gargano, Faouzi Ghoulam struggled to hit his targets with serving crosses because no one was running in to space, Christian Maggio may have not been actually on the pitch, and Gonzalo Higuain was offside continually again thanks to passes taking too long to develop.
Long story short, the first half wasn't much fun to watch.
The second half started in wonderful fashion, though. Napoli pressed hard off the whistle, and in just the second minute of the half they got a dangerous ball in to the box that was cleared weakly by a Bilbao defender. The clearance fell to Marek Hamsik at the top of the box, who took a touch and blasted home low in the corner, where Athletic's keeper didn't stand a chance of saving it. It was a vintage moment from Hamsik, and hopefully will serve as a sign of better things to come for the Slovakian's season after a tough season last year.
Then the rest of the second half happened, and... ugh.
Things started to go downhill in the 56th minute, when Ghoulam landed heavily after an aerial challenge and came up holding his wrist and calling for a substitution. That brought in Miguel Britos, he of the heart-attack-inducing defense last week, and things quickly went from bad to worse.
Athletic equalized when Aritz Aduriz slid free of Britos and Maggio in the box on a corner and was left with a simple finish, one that Rafael may have saved if not for a poorly timed attempt at a block from Britos that deflected the ball in to the corner of the net. Eight minutes later, Aduriz pounced on a nightmarish error from a combination of Albiol, Britos, and Rafael when all three went for a ball and none got it, leaving it to bounce to Aduriz, who was able to practically walk it in to the goal from there.
Napoli still had a chance from there, though, despite being down 3-2 on aggregate. If they could score another goal quickly, they'd draw it level and have the away goal tiebreaker in their favor. Alas, it was not to be, thanks to another defensive mistake combined with a very questionable decision from the referees.
Aduriz had again gotten behind Napoli's defense, but this time he'd started his run far too early and was about ten yards offside when a ball was played over the top for him. That didn't keep him from running at the ball, but Napoli's defense switched off assuming that he'd be flagged offside, because, well, he was. The flag never went up, however, and Ibai Gomez ran straight through the line and on to the ball just before Aduriz got to it, firing past a helpless and stranded Rafael.
There's no question that despite not touching the ball, Aduriz was instrumentally involved in the play, meaning the goal should have been waved off because of the offside player. It was not, however, and Napoli fans were rightfully outraged. That does not, however, excuse the horrendous decision by Napoli's back line to not play to the whistle. If anyone goes back to cover or collect the ball or track the run of Gomez, that goal doesn't happen, and Napoli still have a chance in the match. instead, they made a third lethal mistake in less than 15 minutes, and Napoli were dead in the water and with no hope of making the Champions League group stage.
Napoli would threaten a few times before the end of the match, but couldn't score to get themselves closer to Bilbao. The match, and frankly the entire tie, stands as a condemnation of the preparation, planning, and decisions of Rafa Benitez. Napoli were the superior side on talent, even without some of the hoped-for summer reinforcements, but never looked remotely in control of this tie. Bilbao were infinitely more prepared for this match, and like we saw too many times last season, Napoli just weren't ready to deal with them.
This loss, and the position it puts Napoli in, is completely unacceptable. Calls for Rafa to be fired will happen, and will start soon if they haven't already. Given his sky-high expectations for the season, don't be the least bit shocked if Aurelio De Laurentiis pulls the trigger and starts looking for a new head man for the squad. The financial impact of this is massive, with Napoli standing to lose out on tens of millions of euros as a result of not making the group stage, and this result also does a lot of damage to the UEFA coefficient of both club and country. This is bad news for Napoli no matter how you slice it.
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam (Britos 56'); Jorginho, Gargano; Mertens (Zapata 77'), Hamsik (Insigne 70'), Callejon; Higuain
Goal: Hamsik (47')
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Gurpegi, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe, Mikel Rico; Beñat (Gomez 58'), Susaeta (Lopez 72'), Aduriz; Muniain
Goals: Aduriz (61', 69'); Gomez (74')