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Napoli 3, Sparta Prague 1: Mertens brace upends Czech visitors

A Dries Mertens brace was what Napoli needed to overcome early chaos and win in their first Europa League match of the season.

Paolo Bruno

A rough start made way to a brilliant final 70 minutes of the match for Napoli, and the hosts came away easy winners over Sparta Prague, their guests and the defending champions of the Czech first division. A Dries Mertens brace was the highlight for the partenopei, but the overall performance was pleasing, and encouraging after this season's early setbacks.

Things didn't start well at all for Napoli, allowing Sparta far too much time on the ball and in buildup play. To the surprise of no-one, Napoli struggled to adjust to having Walter Gargano in midfield and two central defenders playing at fullback. That helped lead to an early Sparta corner in part thanks to a botched clearance, and that corner gave way to the match's opening goal.

Sparta Prague fullback Costa Nhamoinesu whiffed on a try at a volley directly off the corner, and as the ball ran out to the top of the box, much of Napoli's defense switched off as Dries Mertens ran out to clear the ball. Trouble was, Josef Husbauer was closer to the ball than Mertens was, and he rifled the ball in from the top of the box, with the ball taking a slight deflection off Mertens to throw Rafael off the save.

That lead to a bit of a shocked spell from Napoli where Sparta were able to apply some fairly consistent pressure, but after about five minutes Napoli were able to even things out and get things back under control. Before too long, it was Napoli applying all the pressure, and Sparta were defending desperately.

Mertens was felled for a free kick about thirty yards from goal, but took it quickly while Sparta were gathering themselves. Higuain took his pass and one-timed it to Marek Hamsik, who was streaking in to the box with just the goalkeeper to beat. His shot thundered off the crossbar, and Jose Callejon's followup effort was drilled off the arm of Costa for an easy penalty. This time, Higuain didn't give himself away on his run-up, and converted the chance easily to equalize.

Napoli would have the majority of possession and danger for the rest of the first half, but a more composed defensive showing from Sparta kept them from scoring again. There were some good chances, including Callejon trying to break the crossbar with a shot and Higuain having a beautiful turn-and-shoot just deflected away from goal, but the two teams went in to the break even.

That didn't last long out of half time, though. Napoli were all over Sparta early, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that they would score again. For once, the flow of the match held true for the partenopei. Higuain was allowed to run deep in to Sparta's box five minutes in to the half, and while the defense was distracted, Mertens made an unchallenged run to the near post that Higuain saw and tee'd the Belgian up for a tap-in that Bičík had no chance of saving.

Napoli continued to pile on the pressure for the rest of the half, with Higuain, Hamsik, Mertens, and Callejon all getting chances to score. Sparta were able to work a couple of chances off set pieces, but Napoli's defense were able to do just enough to keep them at bay. Then, with just under ten minutes to go, Mertens went on a slaloming run in to the box from his left wing, using a stepover and change of direction to turn two defenders inside out before slamming home low in the near corner of goal. It was a fantastic goal, and it was fitting for Mertens to bag a brace in a match he played so well in.

The win was an impressive and important one for Napoli, especially with them being able to overcome an early setback like they did. Still, there were concerns; Miguel Britos was actually pretty OK in open play today, but he was an unmitigated disaster on set pieces at both ends of the pitch. He almost gifted Sparta a pair of goals, and completely screwed up what should have been an easy chance at a goal in the second half.

Gargano was a head-scratching addition to the lineup, and that confusion only got worse as the play progressed. When you can accurately say that he was at his best when he was completely uninvolved in the match, as he was for much of the first half, it's a sad statement on the quality of his play. He made several reckless fouls in dangerous areas, was sloppy in possession, and generally useless when he was anywhere near the ball in either phase of the game. If Napoli want to succeed, David Lopez needs to start getting Gargano's minutes, and soon. For his part, Lopez made his debut late in the match today, and looked pretty good in his short cameo, albeit when the game was long decided and done for.

The win was well-worked and certainly a good sign after the shaky-at-best start to Napoli's season, but there were still things to be concerned about. They'll have to be better against better competition, but this is a good stepping stone towards reaching those improved performances. Well done, boys, now go do it again this weekend against Udinese.

Napoli: Rafael; Henrique, Koulibaly, Albiol, Britos; Inler, Gargano; Mertens, Hamsik (Zuniga 82'), Callejon (Lopez 84'); Higuain (Michu 70')

Goals: Higuain 23' (pen.); Mertens 51', 81'

Sparta Prague: Bičík; Brabec, Kovac, Kadeřábek, Nhamoinesu; Matejovsky, Dockal (Konate 75'), Marecek; Husbauer (Bednar 78'), Krejci, Lafata (Schick 85')

Goal: Husbauer 14'