The football often may be more entertaining in the group stages of a competition, but the excitement level definitely ramps up when the knockout rounds begin, even if the football is rather too tactical to produce goals galore and a pulsating game. That's the way it was tonight in Naples, as Villarreal and Napoli battled to a 0-0 draw at the Stadio San Paolo.
The stadium wasn't full (it had rained pretty much all day), but the crowd was nonetheless large, and the flares, chants, songs, and whistles of the Napoli fans were deafening, not to mention the stadium's PA system, which sounded as if it could be heard on the islands in the bay as well as throughout the entire city. We had come a long way since the qualifying round and Dnepr Mogilev!
Both coaches fielded strong lineups, though Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri surprisingly left out Hamšík, with Mascara taking his place, and went to a 4-2-3-1 rather than just three defenders at the back as he often has done. Giuseppe Rossi, still recovering from the flu, returned to the lineup, and Garrido dropped Cani to the bench in favor of playing Marcos Senna and moving Borja Valero to the wing. The main question was the back four: would Garrido go for experience with Marchena and Cicinho, or go for the fitter, younger Musacchio and Mario? Youth won the day, and the double M boys lined up with Gonzalo and Capdevila in front of Diego López.
As for the match itself, the pattern of a tight, tactical affair was evident early on. Napoli persistently played long diagonal balls into space along the wings for Lavezzi, especially, to attempt to play in Cavani, or tried to play balls through to Cavani in the box from midfield. Villarreal looked to make use of its passing game, but also play longer balls to Rossi to start counterattacks. Neither plan produced much. Villarreal, especially Borja Valero, struggled early on to come to terms with the physicality of the Napoli game, and the willingness of English Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg to allow challenges that in Spain would have been punished. Good thing Cani was on the bench; he would have gone down constantly!
The only real talking point from the refereeing standpoint came midway through the half. Santi Cazorla had a shot from the top of the box blocked by Gargano's arm, but there was no question it was involuntary and not worthy of a penalty. The best half-chances of the first 45 minutes fell to Napoli, two through balls to Cavani that Lopez came out and smothered before Cavani really could do anything, and a shot from Maggio blocked by Gonzalo. At the other end, Villarreal's best chance had come early on when Rossi played in Nilmar, but he was well-defended, and his shot was saved easily by De Sanctis. Napoli perhaps had been slightly more successful in imposing its style of play, but frankly hadn't shown a lot of quality other than the ever-dangerous Cavani and Lavezzi.
In the second half, Napoli had perhaps its best chance of the game-- Lavezzi's corner found the head of Maggio rising above the Villarreal defense, but his shot was well wide. Otherwise, the Villarreal defense looked almost serene, clearing high balls and quickly recovering possession from the Napoli attackers. Nilmar was nearly put through on one of his flashing runs a couple of times, and on 63 minutes, defender Aronica received a yellow card for body-checking Nilmar as he looked to create trouble for Napoli. Marcos Senna, who had started for the first time in months and had a good first half, came off for Marchena on 61 minutes. I thought at the time it was just precautionary, because he was beginning to look tired; let's hope he's not injured again. Meanwhile, Hamšík came on for Mascara. But gradually Villarreal began to impose its will on the game, with Borja Valero in particular controlling midfield and making Napoli defend in numbers. Rossi (who later came off for Ruben) clearly was not 100%, but Nilmar seemed to grow in confidence and speed as the second half continued, and Villarreal enjoyed more of the possession.
But of course, with Cavani on the pitch, all you need is one opportunity, and in the 72nd minute, a ball was played past the defense to him, and immediately the ball was in the net. But so was the linesman's offside flag, a clearly correct call. Napoli's final decent opportunity of the match was one of those long diagonal balls that Lavezzi got to, but Gonzalo forced him wide and Diego López tipped his shot over the bar.
Napoli looked spent, and in the last fifteen minutes of the match, Villarreal began to find more space in the attacking half than they had all game. Borja Valero shot wide from inside the box after a nice passing move, Nilmar rolled the ball past De Santis but across the face of goal with no Villarreal player nearby, and Borja had an excellent cross cleared away. In the last minute of regulation, Borja nearly got the goal that would've made it an incredible night, but his strong shot was saved nicely by De Sanctis. In injury time, the luckless Aronica received his marching orders after hauling down Nilmar yet again, so he will miss the return leg next week.
Even without a precious away goal, Villarreal has to be happy heading back to El Madrigal, where they never have lost in European competition. After the abject performance against Deportivo, this was a Villarreal effort full of commitment. It may not always have been pretty, but Garrido got his tactics and lineup right. It was a strong effort from all concerned: Diego López, Mario, and Borja Valero all were impressive, and Nilmar seems to be rounding into form. Giuseppe Rossi had a subpar game today, but considering he's had the flu all week, that wasn't surprising.
The return leg is next Thursday at El Madrigal. All to play for. Endavant Villarreal!