It was scrappy. It was ugly. It was, at times, dysfunctional. But the end result is a net positive, with Napoli beating Lazio 1-0 on the road in Rome, thanks to a highlight-reel goal from Gonzalo Higuain and some just-good-enough defending.
The match started out with Lazio on the front foot, dominating possession thanks to sloppiness in midfield from Napoli. Fortunately for the boys in, er, denim, the home side were utterly incompetent in the final third early on. Some smart defending and patient defending and woodwork defending kept Lazio at bay through corners and free kicks and crosses and attacks while Napoli's attack finished coming out of dressing room.
Once Napoli showed up, though, they did it in style. A long ball over the top from Dries Mertens released Gonzalo Higuain behind Lazio's defense, and despite Stefan Radu's efforts to turn Pipita too far away from goal to do any good, Higuain didn't let that positioning slow him down. He unleashed a cannon of a shot from a tight angle that left Etrit Berisha flustered and crossed up, giving Napoli the lead just 18 minutes in.
Higuain's celebration included a touching tribute, carrying one of Lorenzo Insigne's jerseys to the away fans in a show of solidarity with Napoli's fallen forward. This is a tight-knit group, and you know the players still deeply miss Lorenzo even two months after his potentially season-ending injury.
From there it was... well, it wasn't pretty. They struggled to maintain possession, thanks to sloppy play from Mertens, Jonathan De Guzman, and Walter Gargano. They had to deal with far too many free kicks, thanks to 15 fouls committed on the day, but thanks to some sterling work on the back line from Kalidou Koulibaly and debut man Ivan Strinic and some solid goalkeeping from Rafael Cabral, Lazio were held at bay.
Ironically, part of Napoli's success in defense came from Lazio's effort to enhance their attack, making a change at halftime to bring on an extra striker in Miroslav Klose for midfielder Cristian Ledesma. Klose was woefully ineffective up front for the home side, and Ledesma had by and large been driving the attack for Lazio, combining well with Antonio Candreva to push them in to the final third and create scoring chances. Without Ledesma, Lazio were too often forced in to low-percentage long balls to feed their front four, and Napoli were able to kill most of those off before they become dangerous.
Lazio absolutely dominated possession, but so much of it was side-to-side work in midfield and defense that Napoli rarely felt troubled, especially in the second half. There were definite moments of nerves, especially when Keita Balde got on the ball, but by and large most of the actual danger came from Napoli. Higuain had a couple cracks at a second goal, and Jose Callejon very nearly chested a ball from Marek Hamsik in just before stoppage time.
Stoppage time itself was fairly nervy for Napoli; Lazio got forward several times, and a last-second free kick took a fingertip save from Rafael to keep out. The whistle blew before stress levels could rise any higher, though, and Napoli took all three points, securing third place with a two-point cushion over today's opponents as Serie A rounds the halfway marker.
It may not have been pretty, but beating Lazio in Rome is never easy, and to do it with a clean sheet, even with Lazio depleted by injury, is an accomplishment. Napoli need all the good feelings and momentum they can get right now. Hopefully the second half of the season is a smoother ride than the first was.
Lazio: Berisha, Basta, Cana, Radu, Cavanda (Pereirinha 83'); Biglia, Ledesma (Klose 46'), Parolo (Cataldi 82'); Candreva, Djordjevic, Keita
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Strinic; Gargano, Lopez; Callejon, de Guzman (Jorginho 83'), Mertens (Hamsik 62'); Higuain (Zapata 86')
Goal: Higuain 18'