Napoli move back to second place with victory over Sicilian strugglers Catania...
Napoli moved back to second place in Serie A tonight after a hard-fought victory over relegation threatened Catania.
Juan Camilo Zuniga became the darling of the San Paolo crowd when he netted his first league goal in a Napoli shirt in the 25th minute to ensure his side would collect the all important three points.
The evening’s entertainment began in dramatic fashion as the visitors were denied a sixth minute penalty when the referee waved away strong Catania claims after Pablo Ledesma appeared to be bundled over inside the box by Jose Sosa.
Then, three minutes later, Ezequiel Schelotto met Francesco Lodi’s swirling corner with a bullet header from point-blank range, but watched in agony as the ball cannoned off the outside of the box and wide.
Amazingly, Napoli went straight up the field and won a penalty when Sosa burst into the box and had his shorts blatantly tugged by Giovanni Marchese.
Capocannoniere leader Edinson Cavanai stepped up and, to everyone in the stadium’s astonishment, proceeded to send Mariano Andujar the wrong way but also crash the ball against the outside of the post and behind for a goalkick.
The miss ensured that Catania could continue to sit with 10 men behind the ball and hit on the counter attack. But that all changed when Zuniga latched onto Cavani’s deflected shot and placed the ball past Andujar from seven yards to open the scoring in the 25th minute.
From then on, the hosts had no reason to pile forward in an attempt to break down their opponents and looked content to patiently pass the ball around in an attempt to draw Catania out.
However, just as Napoli looked to be assuming complete control, any pattern they were beginning to establish was broken by a series of interruptions.
First, Raphael Martinho had to be stretchered off and replaced by Takayuki Morimoto, and then Salvatore Aronica and Schelotto became embroiled in a scrap which ended with Schelotto stamping on Aronica’s arm.
The Atalanta loanee surprisingly escaped unpunished while Marek Hamsik was cautioned for his protestations. And with that ended an eventful first half which saw the hosts go in at the break one goal to the good.
Walter Mazzarri’s side emerged from the dressing rooms with renewed vigour and set about putting the match to bed as quickly as they possibly could.
Less than a minute in, Hamsik drew an unorthodox but effective save from Andujar with a swerving, dipping strike from fully 30 yards, and then Michele Pazienza glanced a header inches wide from the resultant corner.
But the Partenopei failed to take advantage of their early pressure by putting the ball in the net and Catania began to grow in confidence.
The Sicilians were still not playing free-flowing attacking football, however, but they were making threatening attacking surges whenever they could, which often resulted in them winning free-kicks in and around the box.
Francesco Lodi proved he was particularly adept at set-pieces in Giueseppe Mascara’s absence, swinging over several dangerous free-kicks and corners. However, there were no takers and Morgan De Sanctis’ goal survived each one unscathed.
In the 68th minute, Lodi decided he’d be better going for goal himself and hit the target with a curling free-kick from 30 yards, but De Sanctis scrambled across his goal to make a routine save.
At the other end, goalscorer Zuniga almost snatched a second with a toe-poked effort in the 75th minute. But by then it was all Catania, who were boosted by the introduction of substitutes Maxi Lopez and Adrian Ricchiuti.
And those two combined to great effect towards the end to unsettle the Napoli rearguard. However much they tried they could not manufacture the goal they needed and the hosts survived four agonising minutes of added on time to secure an important win.
Both sides continue their respective battles at either end of the Serie A spectrum next weekend. Catania host Genoa as they look to pick up a crucial three points in their relegation scrap, while Napoli, on the other hand, face league leaders Milan at the Stadio San Paolo on Monday evening in a monumental top-of-the-table clash .