Napoli were dominant on the day, but not enough so to advance to the Europa League Round of 16, beating RB Leipzig 2-0 on Thursday but losing the tie 3-3 on aggregate with Leipzig holding the away goals tiebreaker after their 3-1 win in Italy a week ago.
The first half was a fairly slow affair, with Leipzig content to let Napoli keep much of the possession, setting themselves up in a defensive shape designed to not so much bunker down and protect their aggregate lead, but to force Napoli to take less-ideal opportunities to attack and generate counter-attacks for themselves.
Napoli played into that tactic at times, but their defense was up to the task whenever Leipzig came surging forward. That allowed Napoli’s midfield and attack to settle in and start picking out the gaps in Leipzig’s defense, allowing them to create some danger of their own. Lorenzo Insigne had Napoli’s first great chance of the match a few minutes before the half hour mark, but suffered the ignominy of both being slightly offside and cracking his shot off the post.
In the 32nd minute, though Napoli got on the scoreboard, with Piotr Zielinski getting on the save rebound from an Insigne shot to finish neatly and with ease. It was his third goal in Europe this season, and it was created by a classically Napoli passing sequence, with Insigne sliding the ball over to Marek Hamsik before going on a darting run, then pouncing on Dries Mertens’ first time through ball to force Peter Gulasci into a diving save — one that went straight into the path of Zielinski’s smart follow-up run.
Napoli were the better team on the night, but despite creating regular and sustained pressure on Leipzig’s defense, it took until the 86th minute and a phenomenal Insigne finish for Napoli to go up 2-0 on the day and level the aggregate scoreline at 3-3.
But Napoli couldn’t rest there, because Leipzig held the away goals tiebreaker because of their 3-1 win at the San Paolo a week ago. They were clearly the better team on the day, and by quite a margin, but they had such a huge hole to dig out of on the road that it just wasn’t feasible. That’s not to say that Napoli didn’t try — they created some very good scoring chances in the waning minutes of the match, but there just wasn’t enough time to get the job done.
And honestly, this is the best result for Napoli. They restored their pride and showed just how damn good they are to make up for last week’s shoddy showing. They bossed a team that many around Europe are excited about, but now get to go home and focus on trying to win Serie A without the distraction of continental competition wearing out their already-thin squad. That priority was highlighted by Mario Rui’s foot injury in the second half, which he managed to play through for almost 15 minutes, but was clearly bothered by during his remaining time on the pitch.
Napoli won, but Napoli lost, and it’s really just fine. That may sound confusing, but it’s the best way to describe the day.
On to the next.