The Biancocelesti leapfrog fourth-placed Udinese to retake third in Serie A as the Naples outfit fall further behind in the race to qualify for Europe's elite club competition
In what was touted as a decisive clash to decide who would occupy the final Champions League qualifying berth come the end of the season, Lazio did its hopes no harm with a 3-1 win over Napoli at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday evening.
An enthralling encounter that flowed back and forth, it took goals from Antonio Candreva, Stefano Mauri and Christian Ledesma to earn the victory over a resilient Napoli side that proved difficult to break down.
Walter Mazzarri had to make do without Juan Camilo Zuniga, Walter Gargano, Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena heading into the match, prompting the coach to field an unfamiliar four-man defense comprising Hugo Campagnaro and Salvatore Aronica on the wings. Lazio handed Lorik Cana and Candreva a place in the starting lineup with the absence of star striker Miroslav Klose.
The game began at breathtaking pace, and Lazio had the first opportunity as early as the third minute when a free kick deflected off Napoli’s, narrowly going over Morgan De Sanctis’ bar.
As if a signal of intent, the hosts continued pushing forward and were rewarded when Abdoulay Konko embarked on a galloping run, sparking a move to find Antonio Candreva advancing into the box. The loan-signing from Udinese duly proceeded to slam a daisy-cutter past a stranded De Sanctis, who should have done better to keep it out.
Napoli responded as Cavani went clean through on goal, but Federico Marchetti did his Euro 2012 hopes no harm with a point-blank save. Marek Hamsik then followed up with a rasping effort that crept just wide of the Lazio post.
The game, despite its early intensity, soon settled down in tempo, with both sides unable to gain the upper hand. Mazzari's side looked especially jaded on their part, as the toll of having played so many games with a small squad this season began to take its toll on the sharpness of their players.
Nevertheless, Ezequiel Lavezzi broke into the Lazio box in the 25th minute, but dragged his shot wide after a slick one-two with Cavani. An equalizer wasn’t far away, and parity was restored on 34 minutes when Pandev scored against his former club following a sublime Lavezzi backheel assist.
The second half began with Napoli pushing forward again, but Pandev and Lavezzi both blazed their shots off target in quick succession. Candreva and Rocchi had subsequent efforts parried away as Lazio responded to its visitors' pressure, with the latter misjudging a good opportunity from a free header to put his side into the lead.
The game swept back and forth as play opened up, as both teams now fancied their chances on the attack. Paolo Cannavaro earned the first yellow card of the night with a late challenge on the halfway line as either side contested the other for superiority in midfield. The game needed something special to break the deadlock, and it arrived when Mauri executed a stunning overhead kick to hand Lazio the advantage again.
The home side were on the ascendancy from that moment on, and swept forward in numbers in search of a third, which arrived from a penalty tucked away by Ledesma after Miguel Britos clumsily tripped Rocchi in the area.
By then, Napoli had all but run out of steam, and could neither summon nor muster the energy to mount any attack of significance to trouble the Lazio backline to stage a comeback.
The Stadio Olimpico exploded into raptures when the final whistle was blown, in knowledge that third spot in Serie A and a possible place in the Champions League was now within their grasp.
Napoli, meanwhile, dropped to fifth in the table, six points adrift of its opponents on the night on the back of its second straight Serie A defeat, and its now face the prospect of missing out on a place in Europe’s premier club competition next term.