A poor performance and a 2-2 draw with Sassuolo has Napoli’s dreams of finishing in second place this season hanging by a thread, dropping two points at a very inopportune time. Worse, though, Napoli rarely looked capable of beating a team that’s hardly performed at even an average level this season, raising major red flags as we enter the final stretch of the season.
Napoli did not start the game well at all, looking a step off and a beat slow for much of the opening half of the match. Sassuolo had far too easy a time controlling the early possession and bringing pressure to Napoli’s defense, with Napoli struggling to respond to get their own attack rolling. We saw a few good moments from Marek Hamsik going forward only for his shots to consistently get blocked, and a half-chance for Jose Callejon set up by Dries Mertens was sent wide thanks to the pair pressing just a little too fast up the pitch.
The second half opened with Sassuolo replacing a pair of ineffective players in Lorenzo Pellegrini and Guy Defrel, but also saw a bit of a change in momentum from Napoli. A couple of minor tactical shifts saw Napoli playing a bit more compact and reacting more quickly on the ball, and Sassuolo didn’t respond to that as well as they had earlier in the match. That meant that Marek Hamsik was starting to see more space — and he used it well, springing Jose Callejon free up the right to send in a cross that Dries Mertens nodded in off Francesco Acerbi with ease.
Unfortunately, that lead would not last, nor would Hamsik’s good play, as il capitano made a disastrous pass back into the defense that essentially fed Domenico Berardi the ball right in front of goal. A couple of touches were all he needed to tap the ball in past Pepe Reina, leaving the score level and Napoli stunned at a bad time.
Eventually Napoli seemed to wake back up, though, and the side started forcing their way through a bit more in the final third to wreak more havoc. A near-perfect free kick from Mertens banged off the bar, and Napoli started putting sustained pressure on Sassuolo’s defense as the last half hour of the match slowly ticked away. It turned out that the crossbar was Sassuolo’s best defender, as it denied them another goal when Lorenzo Insigne curled in a shot we’ve seen him score so many times, only to kick off the bar and away from the goal.
Those frustrations opened the door for Sassuolo to find their way back into the match, and some poor set piece defense saw them take that chance. Pepe Reina made a tremendous save on the initial shot, but was helpless when no one cleared the rebound, giving Luca Mazitelli the chance to pounce on the ball and drive it into the back of the net. That lead didn’t last long, thankfully, as substitute Arkadiusz Milik made a huge impact just moments after stepping onto the pitch, scoring from a wild scrap in front of net to score his first goal since returning from his knee injury.
That set up a wild end to the match as both teams chased all three points, including a dangerous free kick sent high for Napoli and a close-range shot from Insigne blocked right in front of goal. Napoli’s best chance came late when Andrea Consigli came way out of his goal during stoppage time to fend off a charge from Mertens, only for Mertens’ resulting header to be knocked wide by an apparent deflection — one that looked like a handball for a penalty on replay.
The penalty wasn’t given, though, and Napoli were forced to accept a draw because of it. It’s a deeply concerning result and one that could doom Napoli to finishing in third place this season, because Roma will now have the opportunity to push their lead in the standings to four points on Monday against Pescara, with very little time for Napoli to catch up with just five matches to go.
On to the next.
Napoli: Reina; Hysaj, Albiol, Koulibaly, Strinic (Ghoulam 85’); Allan (Zielinski 69’), Jorginho (Milik 82’), Hamsik; Callejon, Mertens, Insigne
Goals: Mertens (52’), Milik (84’)
Sassuolo: Consigli; Lirola, Cannavaro, Acerbi, Dell’Orco; Pellegrini (Mazzitelli 46’), Sensi, Duncan; Berardi (Ricci 79’), Defrel (Matri 46’), Ragusa
Goals: Berardi (59’), Mazzitelli (81’)