A brutal series of defensive and goalkeeping miscues sank Napoli's hopes on Sunday, both in the match and in the Serie A title race. Their 3-1 loss to Udinese sees the partenopei fall six points behind Juventus in the scudetto chase, severely damaging their chances of mounting a serious challenge for the title thanks to one of the worst Napoli performances the team has had in a very long time -- and it was only made worse when Gonzalo Higuain lost his mind late in the match.
As has been far too common for Napoli of late, the start of the match went extremely poorly for Napoli. They were a step slow and a beat off tempo with one another, leading to a series of mistakes that would quickly prove costly. A major miscue from Kalidou Koulibaly handed Udinese a 14th-minute penalty, and Bruno Fernandes made no mistake in putting it away -- though replacement goalkeeper Gabriel did a poor job of saving it, allowing it to slip clean underneath him. Missing Pepe Reina with that calf injury hurt Napoli badly early, and not for the last time in the match.
Napoli's shaky play continued on after going down a goal, especially on the left side of defense. Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam both made a long string of mistakes, which Napoli only barely avoided paying for on numerous occasions, and frustration quickly set in.
It seemed for a moment that things would be turned around, after Gonzalo Higuain hammered home a rebound to score his club record setting 30th Serie A goal of the season -- also his astonishing 65th in 100 league appearances for Napoli -- but the celebrations were short lived. Udinese attacked hard off the restart, and Ghoulam gave up Napoli's second penalty of the match. This one, again taken by Fernandes, was saved in impressive fashion by Gabriel, who had to make a second save off the resulting rebound, but it was clear that Napoli's issues were far from solved in this match.
Napoli would start to wrest away some degree of control of the match, even starting to look like the better side near the end of the first half after looking even for much of the time after equalizing -- that despite Maurizio Sarri being sent off for arguing with officials after a foul very questionably went against Napoli, the fourth time this year he's been sent off. Yet another defensive miscue would cost them dearly, though, when another mistake on the left side of defense pulled Gabriel out of goal to challenge Napoli loanee Duvan Zapata after he pounced on a back pass. Gabriel couldn't get the ball off him, though, and he centered the ball for, you guessed it, Bruno Fernandes, who struck it home on a bicycle kick.
The second half didn't start well for Napoli, who struggled again to link up with one another, and by the time the hour mark rolled around things went from bad to worse. Raul Albiol lost all track of Cyril Thereau, who promptly scored his ninth goal of the season off a high cross from Silvan Widmer on a leaping effort that left Albiol looking stunned that the French striker was even there.
Things went from worse to nightmarish for Napoli in the 75th minute. Higuain, who had been booked for rather vehemently disagreeing with the referee's decision in the 61st minute, was shown another yellow card with 15 minutes left to go in the match. He'd just been whistled for a foul, but it's not clear if the second yellow was for persistent fouling or for another vocal reaction to the referee -- but that stopped mattering just seconds later, when Higuain started screaming at the referee, shoving him back and completely losing his cool, kicking out at an Udinese player. Higuain was so incensed and wild that he had to be repeatedly restrained by Napoli players so he wouldn't go after the referee or Udinese players, and even injured Pepe Reina had to come running off the bench to help haul him off the pitch. To say it was an ugly scene is to seriously understate what happened.
As if the result of the match hadn't all but doomed Napoli's scudetto chase, the likely long suspension Higuain now faces likely finished off any hopes. In addition to the one-game suspension he'll get for getting sent off with a second yellow, he'll likely serve two or three or even more games suspended for shoving the referee and kicking another player in his childish meltdown. With just seven games to go, that's a massive blow to Napoli's attack and ability to compete, meaning that Higuain's lost calm now leaves Napoli absolutely desperate just to hold on to second place.
Frustration is one thing, and frustration can be fine. What Higuain did was way beyond that, and it's not OK in any way, not least for what it did to Napoli.
Now Napoli need to turn things around after this dismal performance, and will need to beat Hellas Verona without Higuain, and also without Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens, who both picked up accumulation suspensions for their respective yellow cards. They have a week to figure it out and to plan out the rest of their season, but things are looking awfully dim after Sunday's battering.
On to the next.
Napoli: Gabriel; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho (El Kaddouri 74'), Hamsik; Callejon (Mertens 58'), Higuain (red 75'), Insigne (Gabbiadini 72')
Goals: Higuain (24')
Udinese: Karnezis; Heurteaux, Daniel, Felipe; Widmer, Kuzmanovic, Badu, Fernandes, Armero (Piris 75'); Thereau (Perica 84'), Zapata (Matos 64')
Goals: Fernandes (pen. 14', 45'+1), Thereau (57')