Napoli have a 2-0 lead in their Champions League playoff tie with OGC Nice, but that result doesn’t feel good enough to a partenopei squad that dominated the day and needed to put their French foes away in the first leg of the tie before going to France next week.
The first half was an absolutely dominant display from Napoli, launching attack after attack onto a scattered Nice defense, and scoring early via a wonderful Dries Mertens strike in the 13th minute. But Napoli struggled to follow up that goal with more scoring, despite having chance after chance handed to them by their French opponents.
In return, Nice were able to generate a few chances of their own on the counter attack, and looked a bit stronger in the second half as the heat and humidity started wearing on Napoli after running so hard and so much trying to press their advantage in the first half. Napoli’s defense bent and bent and bent some more, making too many mistakes and giving Nice too many chances — but it was another Nice defensive error that created the second goal of the game, with Mertens getting bowled over at the edge of the box in a very close call and Jorginho coolly converting the ensuing penalty kick.
Nice tried to fire up to come back after going down two goals, but that only lead to their downfall — in the 80th minute, a rashly late challenge from Vincent Koziello saw him sent off with a straight red, then Polish referee Szymon Marciniak sent off a second Nice player moments later when Alassane Plea earned a yellow card for dissent, 15 minutes after being booked the first time.
But Napoli couldn’t take full advantage of the situation, failing to score again despite being two men up for fifteen minutes by the time the five minutes of stoppage time slipped away and Marciniak blew the whistle to end the game. There were more chances to score, to be sure, but Napoli’s finishing touch was just as off as it had been all game, and instead of putting Nice away, they left the door open just a crack for them to mount a comeback in the second leg in France next week. Hopefully that fate does not come to pass — but this is Napoli, and we’ve seen stranger things happen.
Still, a win is a win, and Napoli were unquestionably the better team today. That’s a huge and important thing, and if they can take this quality and smooth out some of the rougher edges, they’ll be in a great position to play some fantastic football this season. Hopefully including the Champions League.
Napoli: Pepe Reina; Elseid Hysaj, Raul Albiol, Kalidou Koulibaly, Faouzi Ghoulam; Allan (Marko Rog 85’), Jorginho, Marek Hamsik (Piotr Zielinski 59’); Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens (Arkadiusz Milik 75’), Lorenzo Insigne
Goals: Mertens (13’), Jorginho (pen. 70’)
Nice: Yoan Cardinale; Christophe Jallet (Patrick Burner 90’+4), Arnaud Souquet, Dante, Maxime Le Marchand, Malang Sarr (Olivier Boscagli 60’); Pierre Lees-Melou, Jean Michael Seri, Vincent Koziello (red 80’), Allan Saint-Maximin (Remi Walter 82’); Alassane Plea (red 80’)