It doesn't have to be pretty as long as it works. Napoli played a more restrained and muted brand of football than they normally do, but Rafa Benitez was still able to lead his squad to a badly-needed win on the road.
Things started off in perhaps constrained fashion for Napoli, although Marek Hamsik had an early close-range try blocked well by Andrea Consigli. Instead of trying to overload Sassuolo's back line as they normally would, Napoli played to unlock the neroverdi defense while staying responsible in midfield and defense to avoid conceding on the counter.
That worked out well against an early counter-attack, when David Lopez and Raul Albiol combined to blunt a dangerous run and force a poor shot from 25 yards out. That proved to be Sassuolo's best chance of the first half as they struggled to get the ball to Simone Zaza with any kind of quality, and Nicola Sansone and Sergio Floccari did little to help out their line leader from wide areas.
Napoli found that key to unlock Sassuolo's back line just before the half hour mark. Hamsik, who played quite well yet again, laid off a pass to his left to Gonzalo Higuain in the box, then continued his run towards the center of goal while Higuain angled slightly away. That sucked in both central defenders to Marek, including Paolo Cannavaro.... and left Jose Callejon acres of space off the far post to receive a lovely cross from Higuain and slot it home. It was a smart, pretty, and well-worked goal, and with Napoli's struggles in creativity this season, it was wonderful to see.
While Napoli were able to lock down and control things the rest of the way in the first half, the second was another issue entirely. They lost midfield cohesion as Walter Gargano started going on his every-match walkabout, which in turn lead to him giving up a series of rash and needless fouls as he charged around trying to get back in position. Between those and a heated clash with Mauro Icardi that Gargano instigated with a cuffed smack to the back of the Sassuolo player's head, Gargano was more than a little lucky to still be on the pitch when Rafa subbed him off for Jorginho in the 77th minute.
Speaking of subs, there's a concerning trend taking shape with Rafa and Marek Hamsik. There were stretches last year when Hamsik was frequently subbed out of matches around the hour mark, but that made sense at the time since Marek was struggling with an injury at the time. That trend has continued this season, however, despite Hamsik being healthy and, at least today and at midweek against Palermo, performing at a very high level.
In both instances, it left Napoli's attack disjointed and struggling after the squad's captain was taken off, and today allowed Sassuolo to get back in to the match despite Napoli having finally stemmed the tide of the hosts' early second half momentum. Jonathan De Guzman is good, don't get me wrong, but when the side's setup has limited creativity and you take off the best creative player on the pitch for a guy who's not fully bedded in to the side yet, that causes problems, as we saw today.
Napoli were able to survive that, though not without some significant scares late in the match when Sassuolo rang the crossbar and then threatened on a series of set pieces. They made it through to the final whistle with their 1-0 lead intact and three points in hand. In the end, that's all that matters.
Sassuolo: Consigli; Gazzola (Vrsaljko 76'), Cannavaro, Acerbi, Peluso; Brighi (Missiroli 56'), Magnanelli, Taider; Floccari (Pavoletti 72'), Zaza, Sansone
Napoli: Rafael; Zuniga, Albiol, Koulibaly, Britos; Gargano (Jorginho 77'), Lopez; Insigne, Hamsik (De Guzman 60'), Callejon; Higuain (Zapata 70')
Goal: Callejon 28'