It took far too long to take control of the match from a predictably defensive Chievo Verona side, but control it they did in the end, and they picked up a 2-1 win in the end thanks to an own goal and Manolo Gabbiadini's first tally as a Napoli player.
The odd lineup rotation combined with Chievo's traditional "what do you mean we can't have 23 men behind the ball" defense meant that Napoli struggled their way through the opening stages of the match, lacking space or time to operate in, especially in the final third. Dries Mertens and Jonathan De Guzman had fairly bright starts in the opening spell, but Chievo locked down space so tightly that getting the ball to Gonzalo Higuain or Manolo Gabbiadini was almost impossible, and certainly not in positions where they could do much good.
Rafa Benitez recognized this quickly, and went with a dangerous, but in the end effective, change in tactics. Instead of attacking Chievo non-stop like the Flying Donkeys expected, they started sitting back a little more, drawing Chievo's midfield and fullbacks further forward, then launching on the counter attack when opportunity presented itself. That worked out perfectly in the 18th minute, when some bizarre defending on a counter through Higuain and Gabbiadini saw the ball ricochet off a helpless Bostjan Cesar and past Albano Bizzarri for an own goal.
Napoli fans wouldn't be laughing for long, though. Chievo was causing danger on the counter attack themselves, with Dries' Mertens efforts to contain Ezequiel Schelotto coming to naught and Sergio Pellissier running rampant over Miguel Britos. In the 25th minute, it was that pair that combined to embarass Napoli's defense and most especially Britos, with the Uruguayan turning in an own goal of his own to give Chievo an equalizer.
The rest of the first half was a sloppy disjointed mess for both sides, with Higuain isolated and frustrated up top, De Guzman and Mertens utterly anonymous after their bright starts, and Gabbiadini struggling to find space. Jorginho and David Lopez were carrying the load well in the pivot, but there's really only so much two deep midfielders can do to win a match on their own.
The second half got off to a better start, with Napoli shifting some of their attack focus to the wings, better utilizing the attacking qualities of Ivan Strinic and Christian Maggio. That freed up Gabbiadini to slide a bit further inside to better support Higuain, and suddenly Napoli's attack was clicking more smoothly. They still struggled when the ball had to move through the center as De Guzman still wasn't playing well.
Strinic and Gabbiadini didn't care about those central issues, though. They combined with Higuain and Maggio to pull apart Chievo's back line and through Bizzarri off-balance, and when the ball fell to Gabbiadini, his finish was on-point. Napoli's newest attacking signing had his first goal for his new club, and in his first league start to boot. Nice way to make a good impression.
From there, Rafa's subs were focused on controlling the match. Chievo would occasionally get a dangerous counter moving forward, but most of the best remaining chances went Napoli's way. That's not to say that Rafael wasn't busy in goal; he had to make a couple very good reaction saves, one falling to his knees to block a point-blank shot and another parrying away a scorcher from range in added time. But thanks in large part to Marek Hamsik's substitute performance and a rock-solid finish from David Lopez and a subbed-in Walter Gargano, Napoli were able to see out the win.
Getting all three points was massively important today given other Serie A results. Roma dropped points yesterday, meaning the gap to second place is down to four points, and with the losses Lazio and Sampdoria took along with Fiorentina's Saturday draw, Napoli have opened up a more commanding lead on the teams chasing their third place spot. Heck, if you really want to take a long view, Napoli also closed the gap on first place with Juventus' goalless draw at Udinese, though that 11 point margin is still a little too wide to seriously consider overtaking just yet.
Still, it's a good result, if not a commanding performance. Napoli have been proving lately that they can win almost no matter what, and hopefully that's a trend that will continue. Chievo's been a bogey team for Napoli, so getting one over on them in Verona is definitely a nice change of pace.
Chievo Verona: Bizzarri; Schelotto, Cesar (Christiansen 81'), Gamberini, Zukanovic; Birsa (Botta 61'), Radovanovic, Hetemaj, Izco; Pellissier, Paloschi (Meggiorini 71')
Goals: Brtios OG 25'
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Britos, Strinic; David Lopez, Jorginho (Gargano 69'); Gabbiadini (Callejon 65'), De Guzman, Mertens (Hamsik 77'); Higuain
Goals: Cesar OG 18', Gabbiadini 61'