As we've seen all too often of late for Napoli, their match on Sunday against Empoli was a tale of two halves — one utterly dominant and assured, and one that at times was anything but. Unlike the games Napoli have struggled in lately, though, they managed to capitalize on their dominance enough and contain their struggles enough to still walk away with a crucial 3-2 win over Empoli.
Napoli arrived at the Castellani having never won in Empoli in six previous meetings and having a reputation for being sloppy and struggling with the early kick off games in the past. 4000 travelling fans were in the stands to greet the team as they came out at the start and try give them a much needed boost and wake up call.
Unsurprisingly Napoli started off the game looking like they had just been dragged out of bed and told to get onto the pitch without even having time for an espresso. Loose passes and half-hearted challenges littered the opening few minutes with Napoli playing like they were still drunk from St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, most notably the Romanian Vlad Chiriches.
In the 7th minute Dries Mertens capitalized on a slack defensive pass and nipped in just before Andrea Costa could get to the ball, he took down the Belgian with a kick to the chest just inside the box. Unfortunately he saw his penalty saved by the legs of Skorupski, a weak shot straight down the middle.
In the 19th minute Lorenzo Insigne decided to take the game by the scruff of the neck, showing his determination by taking control of the ball on the half way line and playing some nice once touch passes with Mark Hamsik and Faouzi Ghoulam to move up higher in the pitch. Ghoulam crossed it in towards Mertens as Insigne followed the cross into the box and pounced onto the headed clearance to finish nearly into the bottom corner.
In the 24th minute Mertens more than made up for his penalty miss by scoring a superb free-kick that flew into the top corner past Skorupski, who just about got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out. Just 14 minutes later, Insigne made it 3-0 from the penalty spot, sry up after his pass found Jose Callejon on the back post, with the Spaniard getting taken down by Manuel Pasqual in a desperation effort after Callejon turned him inside out.
The three girl leaf at the break was most welcome after the slow start, with Napoli finally finding their rhythm and dominating the game by pushing Empoli back into their own area. Everyone performed well in that first half — except perhaps Vlad Chiriches, who picked up from his last game against Palermo where he lost the ball five times in dangerous situations, by continuing to give the ball away and to look more and more nervous and lacking anything close to confidence.
The second half begins with Napoli slowly passing the ball around the field without any pressure or opposition from the Empoli front line. A strange substitution at the hour mark left Napoli's midfield a little out of sorts, with a solid performance from Jorginho ending early in favor of the out of form Amadou Diawara, and a former Napoli player took full advantage.
Omar El Kaddouri took advantage of a gap to run at the defense, but was taken down by Callejon. He stepped up to take the free-kick and sent it over the wall and above Allan’s head, who didn’t jump, and past a lead footed Reina. That goal meant no clean sheet against an Empoli team that hadn’t scored in six hours of football, and by a player discarded by Napoli in the last minute of the winter market. An all too familiar story for Napoli fans; slack defending and a goal scored by a former payer.
After his typically long delay Sarri decided to reach up to the top shelf and blow the dust and cobwebs off a player most of us had forgotten about. He brought in Emanuele Giaccherini for Insigne, another strange substitution as what Napoli needed right then was some one to take control of the ball and either go for the fourth goal or slow the tempo down, and that player was Insigne or maybe Jorginho — not Amadou Diawara or Emanuele Giccherini.
With less than ten minutes to go in the game, the third penalty was given after Ghoulam tripped Krunic in the box when there was no real danger. Krunic was running away from goal and Chiriches was coming around to cover another lack of concentration and clumsy tackle by the contract rebel. Massimo Maccarone stepped up and coolly side footed it into the net. Napoli were rattled, with Raul Albiol getting booked for a foul on Maccarone, the resulting free kick that lead to a headed chance that just went over the bar.
Arek Milik came in for Mertens for the last 10 minutes to help out for set pieces and try get Napoli back up the pitch as Empoli applied some pressure searching for their third goal. Napoli fortunately managed to see out the game and thankfully didn't give away an equalizer in a game despite until the 60th minute it looking like they would go on to win the game quite comfortably.
This score line comes down to in-game management and the decisions Sarri makes during the match. Taking out Jorginho and Insigne left the team without any control, no playmaker, nobody to dictate the tempo and set the marker down. Instead they took their foot off the gas and no longer tried for a fourth goal which allowed Empoli back into the game. Meanwhile Sarri stalwarts Hamsik, Callejon and Ghoulam remain on the pitch for 90 mins when it is clear they have tired and are in need of a break. This is the type of game that the fingers are pointed stating that it is this lack of Cazzimma and experience, this inability to see games out will never see us win the Scudetto. They could be right, they could be wrong but these games happen far too often for us to be taken serious. International break coming up now and then we are back with a bang and a double header against Juventus.
Empoli: Skorupski; Laurini, Bellusci, Costa, Pasqual; Croce (Dimarco 86’), Diousse (Mauri 70’), Krunic; El Kaddouri, Thiam, Pucciarelli (Maccarone 67’)
Goals: El Kaddouri (70’), Maccarone (pen. 82')
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Chiriches, Albiol, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho (Diawara 62’), Hamsik; Callejon, Mertens (Milik 83’), Insigne (Giaccherini 77’)
Goals: Insigne (19’, pen. 38'), Mertens (24’)