Napoli put on a wildly impressive display to put away a difficult opponent in Benfica, riding a first-half goal from Marek Hamsik and a second-half brace from Dries Mertens to win 4-2 in Champions League action. That result coupled with the 1-1 draw between Besiktas and Dynamo Kyiv in Turkey means that Napoli have a four-point lead in their group as well, and everything is coming up partenopei right now.
Despite the final scoreline, things actually started out with Benfica on top, holding the majority of the possession in the opening 15 minutes and creating several dangerous chances, and seeing Raul Albiol go down with a leg injury that forced Nikola Maksimovic into the match, making his Napoli debut under difficult, high-pressure circumstances.
Those Benfica chances included one that Pepe Reina spilled too easily, forcing Elseid Hysaj to make a heroic block to keep Kostas Mitroglu from scoring an easy goal. It was a brilliant bit of defending from Hysaj, not over-committing to chasing the ball like many defenders were and getting himself big and in the right spot at just the right time to keep Mitroglu’s shot from finding the back of the net.
That moment seemed to wake Napoli up, because they kicked into high gear immediately after that. That turned into an attack that nearly gave them a goal, but ended in a corner kick instead — one that saw Marek Hamsik slip his man and head home from the near post. It was a gorgeous little corner sequence, and it gave Napoli a crucial early lead.
They’d manage to protect that lead while creating a handful of good chances before the halftime whistle, and when Napoli came out for the second half they came out swinging, scoring three goals in seven fantastic minutes, including a brace from Dries Mertens — one of them on a stunningly good free kick — and a penalty converted with ease by Arkadiusz Milik.
Even outside the goals, though, all throughout the opening stage of the second half Napoli were a dominant force. They were able to move the ball around at will, exploiting every pocket of space that Benfica left and battering away at their defense to force them into making mistakes, mistakes that Napoli took advantage of with ruthless efficiency. To see Napoli doing that to a side as good as Benfica was most welcome, and a very promising sign of how they can perform going forward this season.
Unfortunately, things got a bit sloppy from Napoli after taking that huge lead — a sloppy pass from Jorginho in the 70th minute allowed Goncalo Guedes to race free, and Maksimovic didn’t have the energy left to run him down — likely why Maksimovic hasn’t been starting. A bad read on when to come out from Pepe Reina let Guedes round him easily, and just like that it was 4-1. Twelve minutes later, it was a mistake from Kalidou Koulibaly allowing Benfica to score, letting Eduardo Salvio past him too easily. Faouzi Ghoulam couldn’t cover him in time, and Reina again did poorly to stop the shot, reacting far, far too slowly to make a difference.
Despite the disappointing end of the match, the positives far outweigh the negatives in this match. Napoli easily beat their toughest rivals in the group, got a solid emergency performance from Nikola Maksimovic, and when they really pushed forward their attack had their way with a normally-stout Benfica defense.
Most important of all: the Stadio San Paolo faithful got to sing and cheer and celebrate a huge win in the Champions League again. That’s worth a lot.
On to the next.
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Koulibaly, Albiol (Maksimovic 11’), Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik; Callejon (Insigne 70’), Milik, Mertens (Giaccherini 82’)
Goals: Hamsik (20’), Mertens (51’, 58’), Milik (pen 54’)
Benfica: Julio Cesar; Semedo, Lindelöf, Lisandro Lopez, Grimaldo; Fejsa (Gomez 82’), Andre Almeida, Andre Horta (Salvio 56’), Pizzi, Carrillo (Guedes 67’); Mitroglou
Goals: Guedes (70’), Salvio (86’)