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Napoli keep hold of third with a solid win over Udinese

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Goals from Dries Mertens and Manolo Gabiddiani, combined with a Cyril Thereau own goal, gave Napoli all three points.

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

For the first 20 minutes, it seemed Napoli fans were getting one of those rare glimpses of the team that was actually meant to challenge for the scudetto this season. The hosts were keeping possession, getting forward in waves, zipping around Udinese like the visitors were a bunch of parking cones and they were a brand-new Ferrari.

So the opening goal really came as no surprise. Dries Mertens has been a little off his game recently, leading many to speculate as to whether threats from his agent have him in the starting XI rather than actual merit. But the Belgian earned his spot today, holding off pressure from Gokhan Inler -- yes, really, maybe Dries thought he was still an Udinese player? -- to twist and thread his way through the friulani defense. After a neat back-and-forth with Gonzalo Higuaín, Mertens poked the ball into the back of the net, and Napoli were out in front.

Napoli's second goal came via the newest member of the squad, with Manolo Gabbiadini getting his second in as many matches. Credit, though, has to go to Marek Hamšík, with the captain reminding everyone exactly why he still runs the show. Marekiaro, coming up the left, threaded a perfectly weighted ball on to Gabiddiani, racing through to the center of the box. 2-0 with barely 20 minutes gone.

Unfortunately, that second goal finally jolted Udinese awake. The sides' roles reversed, and suddenly it was the visitors tormenting Napoli. The partenopei defense were lucky to be let off when Allan's shot rattled the crossbar, but two minutes later, they were back to causing havoc once more. Cyril Théréau came racing down the right, and when Rafael realized he was alone in front of net, the keeper went out in an attempt to clean up. Alas, Théréau dinked the ball over Rafael's head, and with no one able to get back in time, it bounced into an open net.

Somehow -- I'm not entirely certain how, as my hands were covering my eyes much of the time -- Napoli made it to the break without conceding another. After the restart, the hosts again looked in control, a blessed relief to the fans.

And this time, it was Napoli that were able to shake up Udinese. Théréau got a bit too nervous when defending a Mertens freekick, racing forward and crashing into Danilo. In the chaos, the Frenchman kept his foot stuck out in front of him, knocking the ball beautifully into goal.

From then on, Napoli had the game well within their control. The tempo slowed, with the hosts dictating the pace, yet still taking their chances when they came. There was a bit of a scare when a wonderfully-taken Udinese free kick looked goalbound, but Rafael did well to palm it over the bar.

Napoli very nearly got a fourth in the final minute, when José Callejón sent a short pass in to fellow substitute Jonathan de Guzmán. The latter put his shot inches wide, however. It ultimately won't matter, but after seeing Napoli a pretty damn fine game, it would've been nice to celebrate another goal.

Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Britos, Ghoulam; Gargano (Jorginho 82), Inler; Gabbiadini (Callejon 55), Hamsik, Mertens (de Guzman 67); Higuain

goals: Mertens 8', Gabbiadini 21', Thereau o.g. 59'

Udinese: Karnezis; Piris, Danilo, Heurtaux; Widmer, Allan, Hallberg (Aguirre 63), Guilherme, Pasquale; Fernandes (Perica 79), Thereau (Gabriel Silva 87)

goals: Thereau 27'