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Advantage Napoli in Champions League despite Udinese draw

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By Chris Smith

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Udinese and Napoli were left frustrated after Sunday’s 2-2 draw as both wasted a golden opportunity to push on in the race for the Champions League. Level on 47 points before kick-off, a victory for either side would have consolidated fourth position, and with Nicola Legrottaglie scoring a late winner for Catania over Lazio, the door to third was momentarily opened. The point will be received much more gratefully by the Partenopei dead and buried as they were, but given talismanic frontman Edison Cavani missed a late penalty, the garden could have been a lot rosier.

Both sides went into the game sapped of the sort of confidence which defines the more promising aspects of their play. Udinese seemed to have done the hard work in midweek against Alkmaar having clawed back a two-goal deficit and established a man advantage within the first 15 minutes. The Zebrette’s failure to qualify, along with their record of having won just one of the last seven games now, reflects their recent inability to impose themselves on opposition - a trait borne out again in Sunday’s game.

As for Napoli, the resounding 4-1 defeat away to Chelsea on Wednesday shell-shocked a side that had won its previous six consecutive matches. Both exits intensified the pressure of the match in Udine, and it was Mazzarri’s men who felt it most - second-best all over the pitch in the first half. Giampaolo Pinzi was on-hand to finish a neat passing move after Diego Fabbrini exploited Napoli’s poor marking to give Udinese thoroughly deserved lead at the break.

Antonio di Natale added a close-range second after Pinzi had headed Giovanni Pasquale’s neat cross against the bar, taking his Serie A tally to 19 – one behind both Serie A leader Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the total of the rest of his teammates combined. 2-0 up and seemingly cruising (Francesco Guidolin will be sick of thinking that this week), the game changed as Diego Fabbrini was sent off for a second booking. At once, Napoli’s attack was galvanised with the sense of urgency and efficiency that makes them unplayable at times, and despite being out of it with just 15 minutes to go, there seemed no doubt that the Neapolitans would take at least a point.

A senseless Maurizio Domizzi handball gifted Cavani the chance to draw level from the spot, but the Uruguayan’s weak shot was saved by Samir Handanovic – the Slovenian’s seventh stop from the last 14 penalties faced. But striker was not to be denied, and in a devastating two-minute salvo, demonstrated the quality which has kept him on the tip of the football’s world tongue this year. A superb 20-yard free kick followed by a powerful left-foot drive drew Napoli level, turning certain defeat into possible victory, with only an outstanding Handanavic stop to deny Juan Zuniga at the death saving Udinese’s blushes.

At the end of a week both sides will want to put behind them, momentum was undoubtedly with the Partenopei at full-time, which will be crucial given the tough set of fixtures ahead. In the next three league encounters, Napoli face a Catania side that have lost just one of the last 10, an unbeaten Juventus, and Lazio in a game that will prove the most important so far in the race for automatic Champions League qualification. If Mazzarri’s men can show the sort of spirit that claimed the potentially valuable draw at the Stadio Friuli, and take significant points from those games, competitors will find it hard to wrestle third place from their grasp.

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