Napoli and Athetic Bilbao faced each other in the first leg of Champions League qualification match held at Stadio San Paolo.
Napoli was made to struggle by the visitors in the first half and the first 15 minutes of the second half. But Napoli soon found the rhythm and Gonzalo Higuain equalized in the 68th minute in reply to Iker Munian’s first half goal.
A 1-1 draw means Napoli will have a tough task when they face Athletic in Bilbao.
Rafael Benitez used a 4-2-3-1 formation with two South Americans, Walter Gargano and Jorginho playing as holding midfielders. Both the players a big part in keeping the possession but could not create any openings out it. Back four was used brushing aside the rumor that Napoli were switching to a 3 – man defense. Ernesto Velverde also used a similar system, but with one change – his approach was to close down the gap and to press continuously.
Athletic played very narrowly compared to Napoli and attacked through their right. Their left back Mikel Balenziaga had very less attacking to do compared to right back Oscar de Marcos.
Athletic Club pressing and closing down –
Both the managers adopted 4-2-3-1 system but the mentality of the players of both the sides was completely different – Athletic players pressed all over the pitch, Napoli players were happy to let their opponents free.
Athletic also marked some of the players of Napoli to some extent – the wingers tracked back the wingbacks. Ander Iturraspe marked Marek Hamsik and the wingbacks checked the runs of Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne, by sticking to them.
Napoli initially were not able to respond to this pressing game of Athletic and lost the majority of the balls in the middle third. Napoli, therefore attacked through their left and right. Even the wingers, Markel Susaeta and Munian, joined the midfielders to pressurize the Napoli’s midfield.
On the other hand, Napoli never bothered to press their opponents. Marking was done to some extent.
Munian’s goal –
Athletic scored their first goal by capitalizing on two mistakes of Napoli. It was assisted by Oscar de Marcos. de Marcos made a run into the channel between the left back and left central midfielder, by overlapping Susaeta. The left back, Miguel Britos, was busy marking Susaeta. Insigne, who is a forward, had to track de Marcos. He failed. This was the first mistake made by Napoli – marking unwanted players.
The second mistake, as said before, Napoli did not mark their opponenets. Munian was freely waiting inside the box for de Marcos’ pass.
First half was dominated by Athletic Bilbao by having eight attempts and converting one. The first half goal eased the pressure on Athletic and in the second half they set out with an intention of defending this away goal.
Midfield problems for Napoli –
With the wingers also joining the midfielders while defending, Athletic had the upper hand in the midfield region. For Napoli, their captain, Hamsik, who playing as the central attacking midfielder rarely assisted his central midfielders in overcoming this. He never dropped deep. Napoli could have had a few more chances in the first half, had Hamsik dropped a bit deep into the midfield region.
Napoli’s long ball tactics –
Hamsik’s absence in the Napoli’s midfield left a large gap between the two midfielders (who were playing very deep) and the forwards. Through balls were ineffective. So Benitez’s men decided to play long balls over Athletic’s defense. Insigne had a couple of chances in the first half but his poor finishing let Napoli down.
Second half – Athletic start switching between two formations –
As defending was their top priority, Athletic started the second half with a new formation -> 4-4-1-1. Susaeta and Munian joined the Iturraspe and Mikel Rico in the center of the field. Benat played behind Artiz Adruiz.
Napoli too made a few changes. In order to negate the opposition’s pressing, Napoli stated playing quick 1-2s instead of trying to play long balls. Bentiez asked his team to play wide to create an opening in the middle.
Higuain’s goal –
Tired due to their constant pressing in the first 60 minutes, Athletics’s speed gradually decreased. Napoli took advantage of this by making a few clever passes through the center. Dries Mertens replaced Insigne and it boosted Napoli’s attack. Higuain scored in the 68th minute, which was a brilliant goal.
Sensing that the game was getting out of his grasp, Velverde brought on defensive midfielder Mikel San José for Benat. Rico moved into the space between the two wingers.
As Athletic attack through their right for most part of the game, a change was required on that flank too. Ibai Gomez replaced Susaeta. Another defensive midfielder Erik Moran came on for Iturraspe.