By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
It was midway through the last decade that the word 'bouncebackability' was introduced into the footballing lexicon, and on Sunday it was demonstrated in its purest form as Italy's fallen European heroes got straight back on their bikes.
Napoli had been widely accepted to be the most unfortunate of the Champions League's departing clubs, finishing with 12 points in the commonly accepted Group of Death thanks to a 2-0 win over Arsenal but still finding themselves short of what was needed to reach the last 16. But by Sunday, they were taking their future back into their own hands, despatching Inter with a great deal of confidence.
Abysmal decision-making by Yuto Nagatomo led to the first of their four goals, with Gonzalo Higuain lashing home a left-foot strike that the Japanese wing-back could not have teed up better had he tried. The scores were levelled when Esteban Cambiasso netted after a vital touch from Ricardo Alvarez left the Inter skipper free of Christian Maggio, but before long Dries Mertens put Napoli back in front after Blerim Dzemaili capped a superb burst forward by holding off Andrea Ranocchia and laying the ball off beautifully for the Belgian.
|SERIE A RESULTS & TABLE
Mertens was soon returning the favour, capitalising on a lost ball from Hugo Campagnaro and firing in a low shot which was too much for Samir Handanovic to handle, allowing Dzemaili to drill home the loose ball. Nagatomo halved the lead by tucking in a low Fredy Guarin cross, but after the interval Inter's hopes were hampered by Alvarez's debatable sending-off and destroyed by Jose Callejon's clincher from Lorenzo Insigne's centre. Even a Handanovic penalty save from Goran Pandev wasn't going to take the shine off the hosts' performance.
The result will have come as a massive boost to Rafa Benitez, who was facing Inter for the first time since they sacked him in December 2010 immediately after they had been crowned the world club champions. Having been brought in to take the club on an extra step from the Walter Mazzarri regime, a victory over his predecessor was just the shot in the arm he will have needed following the disappointment of midweek.
Napoli may well have beaten Arsenal, but they didn't do so convincingly enough to progress, and their league form has not been overly impressive over the past five weeks either. There remained signs against Inter that there is significant room for improvement, particularly defensively, but the result was the perfect response to their recent travails.
Many questions have also been asked of Antonio Conte since Juventus' Champions League exit at the hands of Galatasaray on Wednesday, but four days on it was Carlos Tevez who did all the talking for his coach.
The Argentine will have gone five-and-a-half years without a goal in the Champions League by the time he next gets the opportunity to play in the competition, but he netted a hat-trick in the 4-0 win against Sassuolo on Sunday as the Bianconeri made their first step back into the limelight following their snow-bound setback in Istanbul.
It will take more than a victory over newly-promoted opponents for Conte to be allowed to forget about his failures in Europe, but he'll take whatever he can get right now. Nothing less than a third successive Serie A title will be good enough now for a set of supporters who have been reintroduced to the feeling of success in recent seasons, and the coach's desire to win on the continent with his beloved Juve should only be strengthened by the events of the past week.
Benitez's stock may have suffered a slight jolt in midweek, but he was back on track by Sunday night. Trophies remain the Spaniard's goal, and with Napoli having been long shots for a Champions League win he is as close to winning silverware this morning as he was seven days ago.
Conte might also have been back to winning ways at the weekend, but his reputation will take somewhat longer to repair itself. Three points mark only the beginning of the long road back.