Villarreal took on SSC Napoli in a must-win (or at least must-draw) Champions League matchup at the Stadio San Paolo, the first CL match ever in Napoli (yes, they did play in the European Cup, but I'm not counting that). It appeared all the fireworks Napoli fans had saved over 30 years or so were set off before the start....
Coach Garrido made only one change from the side we praised on Saturday, bringing Jonathan de Guzmán in for the suspended Borja. Napoli nearly had a decent scoring chance early on, but a crucial JdeGuz clearance denied any shot. Meanwhile, Nilmar earned a quick yellow on Aronica. Cani at one end, then Hamsik and Lavezzi at the other put shots well over the top--safe to say everyone was a mite amped up!!
Napoli looked to be getting a bit on top, but it was still a surprise when the first goal came, and it came from a defensive breakdown after a throw-in. Hamsik broke perfectly into the box, and Zapata slipped when he tried to follow his run. Nonetheless, Hamsik practically had time to order a slice of pizza before controlling Lavezzi's cross and slamming the ball past López--where was any defensive help?
And while we were still reeling from that, within a minute Napoli played a long ball through to Lavezzi, who ran past Gonzalo. The defender, beaten for pace, tripped the Napoli player as he ran into the box. It was a clear penalty, and frankly no one could have been too surprised if Gonzalo had been sent off. Referee De Bleeckere gave a yellow instead, but Cavani didn't show similar mercy, clinically dispatching the penalty to give Napoli a 2-0 lead within 17 minutes.
Villarreal had some opportunities in the next 20 minutes, but Rossi and Nilmar were crowded out at crucial moments. Even when Cavani tried to present Nilmar through an opportunity through an errant backpass, the Brazilian tried a quick flick at goal which had no chance of hitting the target.
Garrido yanked Gonzalo for Camuñas, going for attack and dropping Bruno back to central defense. Villarreal did control more of the ball, not surprisingly, but apart from some runs by Zapata down the right our attack lacked width. We were trying to play through the center of the field too much, allowing the Napoli back three, and especially Gargano in midfield, to break up our attacks.
In the last ten minutes of the half Villarreal created a couple of corners and forced Napoli defenders into making some tackles in key areas, but it couldn't be said we troubled them much.
HT Napoli 2-0 Villarreal
The second half began like the first, but with more application from the Submarine. Villarreal won a free kick but de Guzman's shot was high and wide. From the next attack we had a good chance, but Rossi's header was saved by De Sanctis. Still, we were looking more dangerous. Cannavaro nearly presented us with a penalty, but his pullback on Rossi was JUST outside the box, and we wasted the free kick opportunity.
We needed Ruben up front, though--Nilmar was not producing anything in terms of runs or ball control to trouble the Napoli defense. We survived a quick break when Zapata accidentally stepped on Cavani's foot in the box and cleared the ball to safety.
And the spark seemed to be going out from the game. Although Villarreal was controlling the ball, and to be fair both Catalá and Zapata were doing their best to push forward and present the attack with a bit more width, the understanding among everyone just wasn't there. And why de Guzmán was taking free kicks when we had goalscoring opportunities, rather than Rossi, was beyond me, unless it had something to do with Rossi's ankle.
I was surprised Garrido stayed with this lineup, because even though we were controlling play, we were not forcing things quite enough. Napoli was now having to do more last-ditch defending, but they were doing it fairly easily. Garrido brought on Hernán Pérez and Wakaso late, but the game spun down to its inevitable conclusion.
FT Napoli 2-0 Villarreal
Frustrating, to say the least. Much like last year against Porto, a couple of defensive breakdowns in a couple of minutes cost us. With Bayern defeating Man City today by a 2-0 score, it looks like we may be competing with the Mancunians for a spot in the Europa League round of 32, which is a real disappointment.
We could have used Marco Ruben and Borja Valero today, yes, but we really needed Nilmar, de Guzman, and Cani to step up today, and they weren't able to. Same for Camuñas. We huffed and puffed, and I know the players were giving their all, but apart from Rossi I didn't see a player confident that he could beat a Napoli defender or two and make the difference. Our inexperience is showing--we're unused to the physical style and quicker speed of CL football compared to La Liga, and Garrido is inexperienced at this level as well.
Villarreal didn't play that badly, but the back four was burned early for the second CL game in a row. For all our possession in the second half (62% for the game) we didn't play quickly enough or creatively enough around the Napoli goal to seriously threaten. And our free kicks were awful. De Guzmán took two that were well over the goal--he never really powered the ball--and the third one we tried to touch the ball to Senna and it took too long and his shot was blocked. Why Rossi didn't try at least one of those, I don't know.
Well, it hasn't gone well in the CL so far, but we have to clear our minds for the task ahead. It may well be that the league becomes our main focus this year, rather more quickly than we had expected (or hoped). Let's look forward to Saturday, then, and three points against a beatable Zaragoza.