What. A. Match. A dominating start to the match from the partenopei saw them take a 2-0 lead on the strength of a Gonzalo Higuain brace -- but a goal for Inter Milan lead to a nervy final half hour that included an absolutely desperate finish. Napoli held on, though, and earned an absolutely massive 2-1 victory -- and earned first place in the league in the process.
Napoli got off to a storming start, applying immense pressure on Inter Milan's defense right from the start, with Gonzalo Higuain converting his first chance of the match just 64 seconds in. Napoli kept taking the match to Inter after that brilliant start, but couldn't quite get the last ball on the mark to give themselves another clear chance at a second goal. The closest they came was when Jose Callejon turned Yuto Nagatomo inside-out and got behind Inter's defense, but couldn't get a clean strike on a volley.
The match got pretty chippy as the first half went on, with a number of rash fouls on both sides. Referee Daniele Orsato tried to start regaining control in the 35th minute when Nagatomo knocked down Jose Callejon off the ball, showing the Japanese fullback a yellow card for his troubles. Nine minutes later, though, Nagatomo forced Orsato's hand, wiping out Allan on a counter attack, missing the ball with his tackle and taking the midfielder's feet out from under him. That kind of foul is an automatic yellow card, and Orsato did what he had to and sent Nagatomo off for earning his second yellow.
That gave Napoli a man advantage for the whole second half, an advantage that they took full advantage of when Higuain scored his second goal of the match, with an incredible finish after fighting through Inter's defense. That goal came just after the hour mark, and it seemed like Napoli would sail through the rest of the way -- if only things were that simple.
Inter Milan pulled a goal back just five minutes later when Adem Ljajic scored his first goal in an Inter shirt. It was a good finish of his own, but came thanks to a breakdown on Napoli's back line, with Faouzi Ghoulam especially at fault for letting Ljajic get by him.
That set off a very poor period of play from Napoli, allowing Inter to hold the ball and get forward too easily and too often. Marcelo Brozovic in particular found great success getting forward, allowed to run out of midfield several times without much interference. It was as though Napoli thought they had the game already won with their opponents down to 10 men, but the actual situation was anything but guaranteed.
With Inter chasing an equalizer and Napoli struggling to keep them at bay, that set up an increasingly-desperate end to the match. Napoli struggled to maintain possession, and it gave Inter more and more chances to get forward and get pops at goal. Extra time was especially nerve-wracking, with Inter hitting the post twice in the final minute, the second coming from a Pepe Reina save that pushed a certain goal into the woodwork.
But the final whistle finally came, wand when it did Napoli held onto their 2-1 lead, and more importantly, overtook Inter for first place in Serie A. Let that sink in for a moment. Napoli are in first place in Serie A. And it's not some fluke thing either -- they've been the best team in Italy over the last two months, with that Ljajic goal being the only one they gave up in all of November. In fact, dating back to their last goal given up in late October, they went almost 750 minutes without conceding. That's incredible.
So yes, Napoli have earned this place. They belong on top of Serie A. That's amazing to say after these last few years of seemingly unending frustration.
Hang on, ladies and gents. This is going to be one heck of a ride.
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik (Lopez 79'); Insigne (El Kaddouri 70'), Higuain, Callejon (Maggio 87')
Goals: Higuain (1', 62')
Inter Milan: Handanovic, D'Ambrosio, Miranda, Murillo, Nagatomo (red 44'); Guarin (Biabiany 62'), Medel, Brozovic; Ljajic, Icardi (Telles 46'), Perisic (Jovetic 83')
Goals: Ljajic (67')