Stadio San Paolo was the venue for a Group C clash seen as a must-win for both teams. A loss for either Napoli or Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) would all but kill their hopes of progressing into the knockout rounds of UEFA’s premier club competition, regardless of what was happening in Paris between PSG and Liverpool. Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli had remained unbeaten in their four Champions League matches so far but were held by Vladan Milojevic’s Red Star Belgrade when the two sides last met in September in a 0-0 draw.
Ancelotti took no chances with his starting XI as he named his most regular line-up. Kalidou Koulibaly and Raúl Albiol form a solid partnership in the heart of the defence while left-back Mário Rui contributes heavily in all phases of the game for the Partenopei. Marek Hamsík is utilised in a deeper playmaking role since the summer departure of Jorginho and ahead of him Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne provide substantial firepower at the head of a 4-4-2 formation.
Unsurprisingly, Vladan Milojevic set his side up in their most commonly used 4-2-3-1. The formation can be a solid block to break down if organised correctly as well as a springboard for counter attacks if the three men behind the striker can get on the ball in transitional moments. Marko Marin would be pivotal to Red Star’s chances of causing an upset in the capital of Campania.
Napoli’s attacking intent was evident from the opening exchanges of the game as they pressured Red Star high up the pitch, Mertens and Insigne chased the ball down like terriers in a dog park as the Partenopei looked to thwart Red Star’s idea to play out from their keeper. Ancelotti’s side were shaped as a 4-4-2 without the ball with Mertens and Insigne leading from the front. That midfield four and two striker setup perfectly met man-to-man with Red Star’s back four and two holding midfielders. Napoli’s intensive press made playing out from the back very difficult for Milojevic’s men and only five minutes into the match, the Gli Azzurri pressure created the first big chance of the game.
Red Star’s 4-2-3-1 medium block looked designed to allow Napoli space in wide areas, perhaps favouring themselves if they could resort the Partenopei mainly to crossing opportunities. Milojevic’s side were rather passive without possession as they hoped to frustrate Napoli and cut-off supply to their prolific strikers. Having an aerial advantage is one thing but tracking movement in your own box is another as Red Star would find to their detriment after only 11 minutes of play. The result of a corner kick for the Gli Azzurri, Marek Hamsík struck to send the hosts in front having lost his marker before slotting the cross home on the volley.
Gary Neville once spoke during a match analysis on Sky Sports about how defenders are told to use a one-second rule when marking their man. The idea is that you cannot focus on just the player or just the ball for longer than one second, else you may lose track of one and find yourself in trouble. Perhaps they don’t have Sky in Serbia but judging by his actions during the corner kick, Red Star right-back Marko Gobeljic has either never heard of this guideline or doesn’t much care for it, preferring to stare only at Hamsík while the ball was swung in and helplessly watching the Slovakian pull away into space to meet the cross, 1-0 Napoli.
One Man, Two Positions
When possession was won by Carlo Ancelotti’s side, they cleverly deployed four players to pin back the Red Star back four. Strikers Mertens and Insigne occupied the crveno-beli centre-back pairing while Jose Callejón played wide in the right channel, marked by his opposite left-back.
Defending in a 4-4-2 shape, the obvious transition in attack would be to have left-midfielder Fabián Ruiz occupy the left flank, but Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli often alter their formation between attack and defence. Left-back Mário Rui, just as he did against Liverpool in an earlier in Group C fixture, moves high and wide when his side regain the ball to occupy the opposition’s right-back, essentially playing as both a left-back and a left-winger. Asymmetrically for the back four, right-back Nikola Maksimovic predominantly sits deep when his side have the ball to form a back three with Albiol and Koulibaly, although he would push forward on occasion when Red Star were situated particularly deep.
This 3-5-2 gave Napoli a lot of width as Rui and Callejón stretched the Red Star back four while Fabián Ruiz’s free role kept the crveno-beli defensive midfielders honest, Milojevic’s men were left with too many forward players to track. Just after the half-hour mark, a simple pass out wide from Koulibaly to Mário Rui caused the Red Star defence to shift suddenly to one side and gaps appeared. Fabián Ruiz’s well-timed run between the Red Star right-back and centre-half gave him time to get a deflected cross into Dries Mertens. The Belgian forward was in acres of space in the opposition penalty area as he met the cross first time to poke the ball past the keeper, 2-0 Napoli.
Difference in class
As Napoli’s intensity dropped, Red Star had a little more joy in playing out from the back and attacking midfielders Marko Marin and Ben Nabouhane finding more time on the ball. But time and time again a mix of technical mistakes and underwhelming decision making, or sometimes just Koulibaly’s dominance, halted the Crvena Zvezda attack and the visitors couldn’t muster a decent chance to get back into the game.
In the other direction, Napoli’s star men once again came to the forefront to light up the San Paolo and punished the slack organisation that had crept into their opponent’s defence. Marek Hamsík had more time and space than he could hope for as he found Dries Mertens with a direct pass through the heart of the Red Star defence. From there the pace and quality of Dries Mertens were unstoppable as Ancelotti’s men made it 3-0 after 52 minutes.
The gulf in class would be greater between these sides but for Marko Marin. The Borussia Monchengladbach academy graduate was touted as the ‘German Messi’ in his younger days, earning a big move to Chelsea but unfortunately never fulfilling that huge potential. He showed flashes of that once lauded talent at the San Paolo on Wednesday night, particularly in the second half when the game became a bit stretched and both defences a little lax. In hair-raising fashion, the 29-year-old German almost singlehandedly tore through the Napoli defence in the 57th minute to set up teammate Ben Nabouhane for a consolation goal for the visitors.
Tactically, technically and physically, this Napoli side bettered their Serbian opponents and always looked like winning this game comfortably, from the early exchanges to the 90th minute. Red Star simply had no answer to the Gli Azzurri’s fluid formation between attacking and defensive phases while the speed and aggression of Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne proved a nightmare for the crveno-beli defence.
Ancelotti’s side seemed whipped into a frenzy for the opening 20 minutes of the match and it paid off, providing the platform for Napoli to control the match in relative comfort. As a result of their 3-1 win, a much needed three points for the Partenopei means Napoli need only to avoid defeat in their last Group C game away to Liverpool to ensure qualification to the last 16 round.
For Red Star the dream of a return to former glories is over for another year, a third-place finish and qualification for the UEFA Europa League is the best they can hope for as they host French giants PSG in their final game.
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