Ten wonderful minutes in the second half overturned 70 minutes of frustration, and Napoli were able to beat 10-man AC Milan by a thumping 3-0 scoreline to send the rossoneri tumbling further down the table and pulling Napoli closer to the top three again.
The match got off to a ludicrously crazy start when Napoli were awarded a penalty and Mattia De Sciglio was shown a red card in the first minute after the Milan right back scythed Marek Hamsik down from behind when the Slovakian was clear through just yards from Milan's goal. That rapid turnaround in the match would have seemed to put the match firmly in to Napoli's hands -- but this is Napoli we're talking about. Things are never that easy.
The resulting penalty was saved when Gonzalo Higuain under-hit his show and telegraphed where he was going, allowing Diego Lopez to save it with ease. Napoli fans weren't worried, though, because they had virtually the whole match with a man advantage. Surely they'd take it to Milan and utterly embarrass their rivals, right?
Well, no. Not yet, anyways.
Napoli dominated possession in the first half, but a tight, narrow Milan defense kept them at bay, and in fact the rossonero had the better of the early chances. It was frustrating to watch as a Napoli fan, with heavy touches, missed volleys, and a shocking display of individual mistakes from a number of players holding Napoli's attack back in a big way. That poor form continued in to the second half, but eventually they had to find a way through with Milan's defense wearing down and, still, shorthanded. The best sign that Milan were starting to falter was their utter lack of an effective attack, and indeed the rossonero would go the whole second half without managing a single shot despite the dangers they created in the first half.
An attacking sequence from Napoli in the 70th minute looked like it was going to break down as too many had before it when a heavy touch from Napoli gave Milan substitute defender Daniele Bonera a chance to clear the ball away. He didn't get a clear touch on his header, though, and instead of booming the ball clear, he just kind of squibbed it in to space in the penalty area. Marek Hamsik was nearby and paying close attention, and he burst on to the ball and fired it home, wheeling away in exuberant delight as Napoli finally broke the deadlock they'd suffered through all match long.
That goal broke the deadlock, and Napoli scored two more goals off defensive mistakes on sweet strikes from Gonzalo Higuain and Manolo Gabbiadini in the following six minutes, giving them a commanding and unassailable lead. With Napoli able to hold possession at will and keep Milan out of the match, winning was a matter of waiting for the final whistle, and the match was so well in hand that Rafa Benitez felt comfortable handing teenaged defender Sebastiano Luperto his senior squad debut, bringing him on as a late substitute to raucous cheers and ovations.
The win is huge for Napoli, pulling back to within four points of third place after Lazio drew with Atalanta earlier in the day. Their seven-point cushion over fifth-placed Fiorentina is also likely unassailable with just four matches left in the season, and things are looking fairly decent for Napoli at the moment. Hopefully this match can be spun in to good momentum for their Europa League semifinal tie against Dnipro, as a hot start and a big win in the home leg this coming Thursday would be massively important.
Napoli: Mariano Andujar; Christian Maggio, Raul Albiol, Miguel Britos, Faouzi Ghoulam; Jorginho (Manolo Gabbiadini 56'), David Lopez (Sebastiano Luperto 84'); Jose Callejon, Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne (Dries Mertens 68'); Gonzalo Higuain
Goals: Hamsik (70'), Higuain (74'), Gabbiadini (76')
AC Milan: Diego Lopez; Mattia De Sciglio (red 1'), Alex, Gabriel Paletta, Salvatore Bocchetti (Daniele Bonera 61'); Andrea Poli, Nigel De Jong, Marco Van Ginkel; Keisuke Honda, Mattia Destro (Giampaolo Pazzini 57'), Giacomo Bonaventura (Gian Filippo Felicioli 84')