It felt like a cold, wet Tuesday in Stoke, but it was actually cold, dry Sunday in Verona, as Napoli went through the meatgrinder to earn a 1-0 win against an extremely physical performance from Chievo Verona. A magical goal from Gonzalo Higuain at the hour mark was what it took to break the deadlock, and Napoli were able to hold on from there to earn three much-needed points to move to second place in Serie A.
While Higuain's goal was the highlight, the story of the match was it's intensely physical nature. Chievo were looking to draw blood almost from the whistle, with hard challenges off the ball and plenty of physicality off it. Higuain in particular was targeted on a number of occasions, with Chievo defender Bostjan Cesar frequently "getting tangled up" with Pipita, as the announcers so eloquently put it. In reality, Higuain was getting bodychecked with regularity, especially in the first half.
He was far from the only Napoli player suffering from Chievo's aggressive nature, though. Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon, Allan, and Jorginho were all felled on numerous occasions, and it was rare that referee Davide Massa did anything about it, even when the incidents happened right in front of him.
For their part, Napoli worked through the pain and frustration as much as they could, but their style of play was badly disrupted by Chievo's efforts. It didn't help that Marek Hamsik wasn't having a particularly good day or that Insigne was struggling with the physical nature of the match. Higuain was doing the best he could, but in the first half he had no luck at all, hitting the woodwork twice and going just high or wide on other chances.
Chievo weren't just battering away at Napoli, though -- they also generated quite a bit of threat on the counter. Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj had a shaky first half defensively, and Alberto Peloschi and Simone Pepe took full advantage of that to bring pressure on Napoli's center backs, leading to a few nervy moments in front of goal. Fortunately, Pepe Reina had an excellent game between the pipes -- one awful throw late in the match aside -- and was able to deal with anything that Albiol and Koulibaly could not.
The second half saw Napoli start trying different things to unlock Chievo's defense, and for a short spell Insigne was finding success and getting into the box to cause trouble -- but a kick to his troublesome right knee from Riccardo Meggiorini quickly ended that. Insigne spent several minutes limping around the pitch, and though he manages to stay on for about 15 minutes after the blow, Insigne's involvement more or less ended then and there. Meggiorini probably gladly took that yellow for the sake of taking Insigne out of the match.
Napoli managed to get revenge in pretty fantastic fashion, though -- Meggiorini was involved in Chievo losing possession and setting Napoli free for a counter of their own, with Ghoulam launching a gorgeous diagonal ball into the box for Higuain, who struck it on a half-volley for just a fantastically gorgeous goal.
That goal helped change the momentum of the match, as Chievo had been threatening for a few minutes before Napoli scored. For about ten minutes after that, it was all Napoli all the time, and while they failed to score a second, that gave them the space and separation they needed to start seeing the match out.
Chievo would have a few chances near the end of the match, but excellent defending from Allan, Koulibaly, Ghoulam, and Reina kept them at bay. The Flying Donkeys got so frustrated that their manager, Rolando Maran, got sent off for barking disagreement to the referee, while Maurizio Sarri looked on with a wry smile. When the final whistle blew after what seemed like an eternity of waiting through stoppage time, Napoli's players exploded into celebration -- and a few Chievo players, Cesar especially, exploded into rage.
We avoided too many post-match theatrics, though, and Napoli are currently celebrating climbing all the way into second place in the league at the expense of one of their bogey teams from the past few seasons. After Napoli's dreadful start to the season, who would have seen this coming? It's been a fantastic turnaround, and if Napoli could win this match, there's hope to think that this hot streak can keep on rolling for quite awhile yet.
Chievo Verona: Bizzarri; Cacciatore, Gamberini, Cesar, Gobbi; Rigoni, Castro, Pinzi (Birsa 64'); Pepe (Pellissier 72'), Meggiorini, Paloschi (Inglese 82')
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik (Lopez 77'); Callejon, Higuain (Gabbiadini 82'), Insigne (Mertens 70')
Goal: Higuain (60')