A fantastic first half performance and strong play in the second half saw Napoli leave Denmark as well-deserved 4-1 winners of FC Midtjylland, breaking the deadlock atop Group D and handing the Danish side their first loss of the Europa League this season.
The match started slowly for Napoli, who struggled to get past a hard working performance from Midtjylland in defense and midfield, and the Danish hosts looked very capable of threatening on the counter. They actually had scored off a long throw-in early on in the match, but the play was whistled dead for a foul while the ball was in the air, though replays made the referee's decision look a little questionable.
Eventually, Napoli got frustrated with being unable to play their game like they wanted to, so Kalidou Koulibaly took things into his own hands, bypassing the struggling midfield and launching a ball some 50 yards up the pitch for Jose Callejon. Ziggy read the pass brilliantly and stretched out for a lobbed volley that beat Mikkel Andersen to the far post to give Napoli a vital 1-0 lead.
That was only the second goal Midtjylland had given up in the Europa League group stage so far, and the first time they had trailed in the competition as well. How they responded to that change in fortune would be interesting -- but Napoli didn't really give them a chance to respond. Instead, the partenopei turned the tempo way up and left Midtjylland spinning around trying to keep up. That lead to two more great goals from Napoli, both from Manolo Gabbiadini -- first off a lovely cross from Allan, then off a gorgeous finish of a long-range strike.
Midtjylland would pull one back before half time, but one thing was clear: Napoli were in control of the match, and the Danes were just trying to keep up. That was the theme for much of the second half, though as Napoli started to take their foot off the gas a bit after the hour mark, Midtjylland were able to work their way back in at long last. They couldn't turn that good play into a goal, though -- thanks in part to this fantastic goal-line clearance from Kalidou Koulibaly -- and Napoli got a fourth deep in stoppage time on the counter as Gonzalo Higuain roamed free and clear.
* * *
The result is a significant one, as it established Napoli as the dominant force in their Europa League group. They have a plus-ten goal differential and are eight points clear of third place, and have all but secured themselves a place in the knockout rounds just halfway through the group stage. Another win against Midtjylland in two weeks and the job will be done, no matter what else happens in their last two matches. Considering that Napoli will have a tough stretch of their league schedule around those last two group matches, that could be truly significant for their overall campaign.
But let's not overlook what Napoli did today for the sake of looking at the long term. They went to a country in Denmark that they've never played in before, faced a tough opponent, and humbled them in their own house. That's worth a lot for the team's form and confidence, because Midtjylland showed that they're a good team today -- Napoli were just a lot better.
On to Chievo. Look out, Donkeys, because Vesuvius is calling...
FC Midtjylland: Andersen; Romer, Hansen, Sviatchenko, Novak; Royer, Sparv, Poulsen, Duelund (Mabil 73'); Pusic (Onuachu 62'), Rasmussen (Larsen 73')
Goals: Pusic (43')
Napoli: Pepe Reina; Maggio, Chiriches, Koulibaly, Ghoulam (Strinic 80'); Allan (Hamsik 60'), Valdifiori, Lopez; Callejon (Higuain 64'), Gabbiadini, El Kaddouri
Goals: Callejon (19'), Gabbiadini (31', 40'), Higuain (90'+4)