Villarreal put out its strongest lineup, either wanting to erase the memory of the Santander debacle or wanting to uphold the integrity of the competition, perhaps both. Borja Valero and Cani were unavailable, but Zapata returned at center back and Angel started at right back.
The game began brightly-- Napoli nearly had the ball in the net within three minutes as Zuniga met a fine Lavezzi cross from the right with his outstretched foot but succeeded only in striking it straight at Diego Lopez--good thing, because it would have been a tad controversial as the attacker looked offside to me. At the other end Hernan Perez found Marco Ruben on the break and he put a low screamer form outside the box straight off the post from a fast break shortly afterward. But then the game began to fizzle as Borja's absence was all too obvious, as was Napoli's nervousness when they moved forward, with Cavani in particular making little impact.
Other than those first two chances, there were few specific opportunities. Probably the talking point of the half was a yellow card given to Zapata for hauling down a Napoli attacker after a bad deflection and turnover in midfield had been collected by Lavezzi, when Cristián appeared to be the last man. Napoli looked quite dangerous from about minute 20-30, playing some nice diagonal balls to set up attacks and putting Joan Oriol under pressure especially, but after that seemed to go off the boil a bit. Still, a Hamsik screamer wide of the goal at the 40-minute mark reminded us of their danger.
Villarreal missed Borja Valero, for sure. DeGuzman wasn't able to impose himself in midfield the way Borja can, and Marcos Senna was competing bravely, so too Hernan Perez, but the linkup with Nilmar and Ruben was sporadic at best. Nilmar had one good opportunity to control in the box but his touch let him down. An even scoreline at halftime was a fair reflection of the game to that point.
HT Villarreal 0-0 Napoli
The second half started brightly too, though my stream developed some issues so I may not have caught everything. Hernán Pérez had a good shot on goal shortly after the restart, and Villarreal stroked the ball around reasonably well--Aronica had to make a last-ditch tackle to keep Hernán from heading away on a 1 on 1, but at the other end the Napoli danger was ever-present, especially from Hamsik and Lavezzi's runs.
Still, for the first fifteen minutes of this half it looked quite even, with Napoli looking nervous and Villarreal riding a bit of luck when Diego Lopez managed to keep out a ball that Joan Oriol nearly shot into his own net after Lopez had to play one-on-one defense against Lavezzi.
Prior to that, the Napoli coach got sent off for interfering with Nilmar's trying to take a quick throw during this period, too--just dumb--and a marvelous passing move nearly ended in success, but DeGuzmán couldn't finish it off. At the time I thought maybe there was a penalty shout, but it looked like DeGuz just couldn't get his feet sorted out.
Garrido brought on Camuñas for Nilmar, I suppose to keep him fit and ready for the league match this weekend, but it removed one of our few players who could maybe trouble the Italians' defense. Marco Ruben couldn't get a call all night from the referee, who kept rewarding Napoli players' flops with free kicks while allowing Gargano and Aronica, in particular, a lot of license in physical challenges. I know, sour grapes, and experienced players often get the calls, but Napoli were not winning any friends at El Madrigal.
When a Napoli goal came, it came from nowhere in the 65th minute. Imler came forward and fired a shot from well outside the box that left Diego Lopez with no chance. A rocket, and Napoli fans celebrated wildly. Maggio tried to emulate Imler on Napoli's next attack, his shot deflected for a corner, and from the resulting corner Lopez made a sensational save on Lavezzi.
Garrido brought on Joselu for Senna to go 4-4-2 again, but in minute 76 a defensive breakdown cost us any chance we had of taking something from this game. A corner was allowed to trickle--and I mean trickle--all the way through to Hamsik in the middle of the box. Gonzalo had recently come on for Zapata and wasn't tight on Hamsik, how the ball got through Joan Oriol I'll never know, but the Napoli player gratefully accepted the gift.
The final fifteen minutes were notable only for Italian time-wasting, frankly. Hamsik and Cavani were replaced by Pandev and someone else who I can't remember. As time ran down, Ángel Lopez, who had been whistled for nonexistent fouls all evening and couldn't win one himself, was elbowed in the face by Aronica. The commentators on the stream I was watching expected Aronica to get a red, instead it was Angel (!) who got a yellow, while Campagnaro picked up one as well for no reason at all.
As injury time wound down, a ray of hope....Hernán Pérez made a great run, avoided several tackles, slid the ball to Gonzalo, who slammed it goalward--and De Santis made an incredible save to deny us a goal. Our next attack, was, sadly, all too literal. Gonzalo saw his chance and paid back Aronica for his elbow by catching him with a well-placed forearm across the face as the ball ran out of play for a goal kick.
Aronica flopped like a gaffed salmon, rolling around on the grass--I have to confess at first I thought maybe someone had thrown something in his face until I saw the replay. I have to ask, what does the goal-line assistant UEFA brags about actually do? I mean, Gonzalo clocked Aronica not five feet from where this referee was standing, and nothing happened.
Fortunately, there were no other unsavory incidents (at least that I am aware of) and the Napoli players were able to celebrate winning the biggest game they've played in their post-Maradona era.
FT Villarreal 0-2 Napoli
Without Borja and Cani, and with Nilmar regaining match fitness, we struggled to translate possession into attacking danger. Ruben was far too isolated, and Senna's influence waned as the game continued. And too often, what started out as a promising attacking move ended in a turnover in midfield, as the Napoli defense was easily able to deal with our too-slow passing game.
But, we were more competitive, and we probably weren't two goals worse than Napoli on the day--though some of that was due to Napoli's nerves. And though I didn't mention it above, I realize, the back four with Zapata in the middle looked much better and steadier. Not that our back four wasn't under pressure sometimes, but it looked much less shaky than we've seen in a while.
Sad that the last CL memory from this year will be Gonzalo's elbow (I understand his frustration, but still...) rather than a brilliant goal. How I wish De Santis hadn't saved it!!
Now let's go after Real Sociedad this weekend. Endavant!!!