Just three clubs had booked their passage to the knock-out phase following the opening four Champions League matches, but none were Italian, nor clubs in their group. With 180 minutes remaining, a draw for Napoli – away at Borussia Dortmund – would ensure qualification. Maximum points at Celtic would put Milan in a great position.
Results were mixed – a loss in Germany and win in Scotland, meaning qualification remains up in the air for two of Italy’s competitors.
The Partenopei have experience playing against German clubs. On their way to lifting the 1988-89 UEFA Cup, Diego Maradona and his men grabbed crucial draws at Bayern Munich and Stuttgart, the latter in the Final itself. More recently, they were defeated by the Bavarians their last time in the premier competition. A repeat of the former result they were seeking, another loss would make things complicated.
Rafael Benitez spoke of a great respect for Dortmund in the Press Conference but unlike at Arsenal, they did not let that translate to the pitch in the opening minutes. At the Emirates two early goals sealed the contest. Here, Napoli – two consecutive Serie A defeats – didn’t let Jurgen Klopp’s side find a rhythm.
Napoli looked settled until Federico Fernandez tugged Robert Lewandowski’s shirt at a set piece to concede a penalty in the 10th minute. It was a foul reminiscent of Real Madrid’s penalty in the first match against Juventus, the sort of tussle referees ignore in Serie A. It’s something all clubs must work on when playing in Europe. Benitez conceded Marco Reus’ early conversion changed everything.
Pepe Reina was on fire and kept Napoli in the hunt. Forced to build again, they very nearly capped a good period through Jose Callejon, whose shot bounced off the woodwork. The hosts had the better of the chances but found Reina a one-man wall. Nonetheless, Napoli should have found an equaliser through Gonzalo Higuain after half-time. His miss proved costly as less than a minute later Jakub Blaszczykowski converted at the other end following a deadly counter.
Lorenzo Insigne was busy once introduced from the bench and halved the deficit. Chasing another goal, Napoli played into Dortmund’s hands by leaving defensive gaps. The counter-attacking masters made sure of the points as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang coolly finished.
“We certainly need to have more belief, as we are a side with a lot of quality and can play at the highest level,” lamented Goran Pandev at full-time. They’ll certainly need it in their final clash.
While Napoli were up against it in Germany, over in Glasgow Milan finally sparked their campaign. They came into this critical match without a win in seven in all competitions. Fans displayed their frustrations during and following the disappointing home draw with Genoa on Saturday.
Massimiliano Allegri’s side needed a positive response. It would have to come at a ground where they’ve struggled, not to mention ending their road duck this term. Milan got their tonic as Kaka lit up Celtic Park with a European performance rolling back the years.
He netted his first continental goal since returning less than 15 minutes in, a glancing header from close range. Milan needed a leader and the 2007 Ballon d’Or winner stepped up with a fine showing. He was busy creating chances and nearly doubled the advantage too.
That accolade instead fell to Cristian Zapata. Like Higuain’s chance, Celtic could have equalised and were punished shortly after. Never far from the headlines, Mario Balotelli then grabbed a much-needed goal and confidence boost, ending a near two-month scoring drought on the hour.
“This was important for a series of reasons and in a very difficult arena we proved we’re alive and kicking,” commented Christian Abbiati following the 3-0 win.
They may sit 13th in Serie A, but Allegri’s men are currently the only Italian side – with Juventus still to play their fifth game – sitting in a qualification position. The scenario for Milan in a fortnight is simple – avoid defeat at home versus Ajax to qualify. They could even finish top with a win and another surprise Barcelona defeat.
Napoli’s situation is more complicated. Aubameyang’s goal gave Dortmund the edge in head-to-head rankings. Given it’s entirely possible the Azzurri, Dortmund and Arsenal will finish on 12 points, it puts Napoli at a disadvantage. Now third, the southern club must defeat Arsenal by three goals to qualify with a better head-to-head record. Anything less – with an accompanying Dortmund win over Marseille – sees Napoli exit.
It means Matchday 6 will prove to be a cracking, but nervous, affair for all Italian clubs. We may see a clean sweep either way – let’s hope it ends with a trio of sides contesting the last 16.