What on earth just happened?
That was one of the craziest, most stressful, most entertaining matches in recent memory. There were five first half goals. Five. Napoli scored the first two, through a gorgeously executed Kalidou Koulibaly header on a second-minute corner, then on a perfect lob from Duvan Zapata ten minutes later after Marek Hamsik drew away attention in the box and laid it off for the big Colombian.
Then Andrea Belotti got free on a corner and scored his first Serie A goal, and less than ten minutes later Walter Gargano stood around and watched as Franco Zapata ran by him and equalized. The match wasn't even a half hour gone, and the momentum had undergone massive swings, and after that the match was a pendulum, with both sides racing up and down the pitch trying desperately to score.
Both sides had a multitude of chances, but one of the notable moments of the half came on a chance that never was. Just before Palermo equalized, Zapata was running free on goal in the box when Sol Bamba came in with a high tackle from behind that got none of the ball and sent the big man spinning to the turf. No foul was called, even though replays clearly showed that Bamba's studs went through Zapata and completely missed the ball. It should have been a red, either for a dangerous tackle or a denial of a goalscoring opportunity (both apply, so take your pick), and Napoli should have had a penalty to potentially make it 3-0 and maybe prevent the momentum swing that gave Palermo their two goals.
Napoli would find their third, though. Just before the half, Vazquez and Paulo Dybas were racing down on a counter, with Dybas waiting in the box for a cross from Vazquez. Henrique put in a note-perfect tackle just as the ball arrived, giving Napoli a chance to launch their own counter, one that Jose Callejon was able to capitalize on thanks to some nice work from Marek Hamsik.
Speaking of Hamsik... wow. We've seen some improved performances from him in recent weeks, but today we saw the vintage Marekiaro that we all know and love. He was everywhere, distributing and putting the ball in dangerous spots for Zapata, Callejon, and Mertens to run on to, and forcing the goalkeeper in to action himself. Funny what happens when he's finally healthy and has time to integrate in to the side.
Duvan Zapata was also damn impressive for Napoli. The Colombian was a constant terror in the box, giving Sol Bamba such a hard time that Palermo were forced to double mark him, opening up more space for Marek and company to work with. Even then, Zapata was a constant threat, using his size and athleticism to get involved in basically every positive Napoli attack. This kid gets more impressive just about every time we see him play.
Those two couldn't do much to help when Palermo equalized for a second time, though. Just past the hour mark, Dybas drove down the right side of Napoli's defense and fired in a hard cross that Belotti was able to meet and tap in. While there were a couple Napoli players who maybe could have done a little better on different elements of the play, the speed and precision of that attack was such that you just have to sit back and congratulate them, because that was a quality goal worthy of highlight reels.
Napoli went searching for a winner, pushing hard and bringing on Gonzalo Higuain and The Hero Of Genoa, Jonathan De Guzman to help their efforts to get it. It all came to naught, though, as despite several good chances, Napoli couldn't quite find what they needed for a fourth goal, and the match ended in a draw. Even Palermo manager Giuseppe Iachini getting thrown out for protesting a later corner couldn't quite get them over the hump.
It's easy to be disappointed in this result. After all, Napoli threw away an early two goal lead and wound up with a draw when a win was desperately needed. But at the same time, they played very well on a whole, and you have to admit that Palermo played a hell of a match as well. They showed no fear, no hesitation; they just came out and executed their gameplan.
Still, though, Napoli needed a win and they didn't get it, so that stinks. There's lots of positives, but a win is a win and this wasn't it. Now the pressure to get all three points this weekend at Sassuolo will be all the higher, and you know Paolo Cannavaro won't be looking to give Napoli any presents this time around.
Napoli: Rafael; Henrique, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Inler, Gargano; Callejon, Hamsik (De Guzman 66'), Mertens (Insigne 83'); Zapata (Higuain 70')
Goals: Koulibaly 2'; Zapata 12'; Callejon 45'+1'
Palermo: Sorrentino; Andelkovic, Terzi, Bamba; Morganella, Rigoni, Barreto (Bolzoni 78'), Daprelà (Emerson 82'); Vazquez; Belotti, Dybala (Silva 62')
Goals: Belotti 18', 61'; Vazquez 25'