Ezequiel Lavezzi scored the decisive goal as Napoli beat Inter 1-0 even after going down to 10 men.
Claudio Ranieri was in his Last Chance Saloon after losing six of the last seven games in all competition, including Wednesday’s 1-0 at Olympique Marseille. That slide made this a head-to-head to stay in the race for Europe.
Luc Castaignos sat out a three-match ban, joining the injured Douglas Maicon, Andrea Ranocchia, Ricky Alvarez and Fredy Guarin. Cristian Chivu also pulled out at the last minute when coming down with flu, so Marco Davide Faraoni improvised as a right-back. Marek Hamsik was suspended for resurgent Napoli, so Blerim Dzemaili stepped in rather than Inter-owned Goran Pandev. Hugo Campagnaro was still wearing a large bandage after banging heads with Didier Drogba earlier this week.
The Nerazzurri haven’t won at the San Paolo in Serie A since a 2-0 result on October 18 1997, followed by two points from five visits.
Julio Cesar smothered an early Gokhan Inler snapshot, while Yuto Nagatomo was booked for bringing down Christian Maggio just outside the right edge of the area. From that Lavezzi free kick, Juan Camilo Zuniga’s shot was charged down and Lucio acrobatically cleared.
A deflected Lavezzi strike whistled wide of the near post, as Pocho was wreaking havoc in the reshuffled Inter defence. A scuffle broke out after just 18 minutes in midfield as Walter Gargano wanted to take the free kick quickly.
Dzemaili unleashed a screamer from the outside left edge of the box and Julio Cesar had to fingertip it past the far top corner.
It was all Napoli in the first half and Edinson Cavani’s looping header turned a Lavezzi free kick just over the bar.
A poor Faraoni backpass forced Julio Cesar into heroics to clear from Lavezzi, balancing the ball on his head to then pass it to Lucio. Nagatomo did just about enough to stop Cavani getting his shot away in the area.
The first real Inter scoring opportunity was on 43 minutes, as Wesley Sneijder’s free kick skimmed the far top corner of the net.
It wasn’t working for the Nerazzurri, so TinkerMan completely revamped the side at half-time, introducing Ivan Cordoba and Giampaolo Pazzini for Sneijder and Forlan, switching to a 3-5-2. It is the first time this team has played with three at the back since Gian Piero Gasperini was sacked in September.
Zuniga’s cross was nodded wide by Maggio at the back post, but Napoli did eventually break the deadlock just shy of the hour mark.
Inter lost possession in midfield and Dzemaili burst forward, threaded through down the left side of the box for Lavezzi, who placed a right-foot curler across Julio Cesar into the far bottom corner of the net.
The visitors reacted with Diego Milito failing to control a Javier Zanetti assist, but Napoli went on a rapid counter-attack and a combination of Cordoba and Julio Cesar managed to stop Cavani pulling the trigger.
Napoli again went close with Dzemaili’s scuffed daisy-cutter palmed round the post. Dejan Stankovic did not seem happy with his substitution and went straight into the locker room.
Julio Cesar punched a Lavezzi free kick out for a corner and from that set play Dzemaili’s header whistled wide.
Inter did create a chance on 72 minutes, as Nagatomo crossed for Pazzini’s volley off target. A desperate Cordoba sliding tackle prevented Dzemaili from tapping in Inler’s low cross at full stretch, while at the other end Pazzini and Esteban Cambiasso couldn’t quite reach the Faraoni cross.
Napoli thought they’d made it 2-0 when Julio Cesar beat away an Inler half-volley, but Campagnaro was flagged offside when he got on the rebound.
However, moments later Salvatore Aronica controlled the ball badly and then hacked down Andrea Poli for a clear scoring opportunity, so the red card was inevitable.
Morgan De Sanctis smothered the Cambiasso free kick, then Pazzini really should’ve equalised at the 88th minute, but he somehow turned a Nagatomo cross wide with a totally free header.
Inter poured forward in stoppages against 10-man Napoli, but Faraoni fired wide.
Sent off: Aronica 77 (N)