It wasn't pretty, but it worked. That's been said an awful lot about Napoli lately, but as long as it keeps on working, it doesn't much matter, and that was the case Monday as Napoli struggled their way to a 2-1 win over Genoa.
Napoli got off to a hot start, dominating possession and getting a couple early chances that nearly lead to goals. It didn't take long at all for them to find a breakthrough, when Gonzalo Higuain pounced on a rebounded save off a shot from Jose Callejon to put Napoli ahead. Higuain was offside when the shot was struck and the play probably should have been waved off, but it wasn't and Napoli had an early lead.
The run of play continued to be fairly one-sided for much of the first half, but poor finishing and some odd refereeing decisions served to keep the scoreline at 1-0. As the half wore on, Genoa slowly grew more and more in to the match, which was an issue for Napoli considering how shakily the defense was playing. Fortunately, Rafael Cabral was more the up for the challenge today, easily dealing with anything that came his way, even after getting kicked in the head by Andrea Bertolacci late in the half. He wasn't called in to action too many times, though, since Genoa struggled to get things done in the final third just as much as Napoli did.
While several Napoli players did well in the first half, most notably Higuain, Rafael, and David Lopez, several Napoli players also struggled badly. Of particular concern where Jonathan De Guzman and Gokhan Inler - De Guzman seemed to make the wrong decision every time he got on the ball, and Inler was an extreme liability at times, both in possession and in defense.
The second half started off with more of the same: sloppy play from both sides, and more bizarre refereeing decisions. Genoa finally found a moment of competence, though, and punished Napoli with it. Iago Falque ran by Gokhan Inler completely unchallenged to get on the end of a Bertolacci pullback, and when Raul Albiol shockingly backed off from him just outside the box, Falque had all the space he needed and then some to shoot for the far post. Rafael was left helpless as he had expected his defense to actually defend the play, and had moved to cover a supporting run from Perotti that had gone unmarked.
Napoli pushed hard to find a second goal after Genoa equalized, but struggled both against a tight defense and more poor refereeing. Genoa were frequently putting eight or nine men behind the ball when Napoli won it back, and were too often allowed to chip or hack at Napoli players without punishment. David Lopez and Jose Callejon in particular took some pretty hard shots as Napoli tried to take control of the match again.
Napoli also struggled with tired legs, thanks in large part to the 120' marathon in the Coppa just four days before this match. Both Marek Hamsik and Ivan Strinic played the full match that day, and while both played extremely well in the first half, it was quickly obvious in the second that both players were struggling with fatigue as the second half wore on. Without their influence to help balance the side's attack, Napoli had problems reliably getting the ball to Higuain and Callejon.
After the introduction of Manolo Gabbiadini for De Guzman, who had been very poor on the day, Napoli's efforts at direct play became much easier. David Lopez and Jose Callejon also started linking up very well around the same time, and the momentum started to shift Napoli's way. Of course, the referees couldn't stay out of the match, with the goaline ref behind Genoa's goal somehow found himself standing on the line and in the way of Higuain as he tried to keep the ball in play and a promising attack alive.
Moments later, a Napoli free kick resulted in a somewhat bizarre decision. Callejon put the ball in, and two Napoli players had chances at it before it went through untouched... and then the referee was blowing his whistle and pointing at the spot. Both Higuain and Albiol and been contacted during the sequence - Higuain was bumped off balance in the air and Albiol's shirt was tugged slightly as he tried to get on the ball after it got past Higuain - but neither incident on their own was worth a penalty. Genoa fans screamed referee bias, but Napoli fans were quick to point out that Napoli had been denied what looked like a stonewall penalty in the first half when the ball clearly struck the outstretched arm of a Genoa defender, keeping Higuain from what would have been a tap-in goal.
Higuain converted the controversial penalty to give himself a brace and put Napoli up 2-1, and from there the match was more about holding on than trying to get a third goal, though there were a couple chances to do so. The match finished at a pell-mell pace, with Genoa trying desperately to force their way through for a goal, though once Napoli's defense tightened up, they found getting chances much harder to come by. In fact, Napoli's defense played so much better at the end of the match, Genoa had but one touch in the final third in the last ten minutes of the match, and that was a scuffed shot easily saved by Rafael.
This performance was far from Napoli's best, though it demonstrated that they do have the ability to pull out a win even when they play poorly. Were Napoli helped by the referees? Yes. Neither goal, as they were scored, should have been scored. But Napoli were also brutalized a number of times today by refereeing mistakes, and have been all season. Plus, with fractionally better finishing, Napoli score two or three other goals and the mistakes don't matter. Also, any kind of actual defending keeps Genoa's goal off the board, so there's that to consider as well.
With Napoli rapidly closing the gap on Roma, down to just six points after yet another draw for the giallorossi this weekend, finding ways to eke out wins no matter what is vital. It's not something Napoli's always been able to do under Benitez - in point of fact, they've lost far more matches like today's than they've won since the Spaniard took over. But if they can keep pulling out results like this, the outlook for the rest of the season looks good.
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Strinic (Britos 85'); Lopez, Inler; De Guzman (Gabbiadini 70'), Hamsik, Callejon; Higuain (Zapata 89')
Goals: Higuain 7', 74' (pen.)
Genoa: Perin; Roncaglia, Burdisso, De Maio (Lestienne 79'); Edenilson, Rincon (Kucka 68'), Bertolacci, Antonelli; Falque, Fetfatzidis (Niang 53'); Perotti
Goals: Falque 56'