Thursday March 7 2019
EL: Napoli take Red Bull by the horns

Arkadiusz Milik, Fabian Ruiz and an own goal allowed Napoli to flatten RB Salzburg 3-0 in the Europa League Round of 16, but Alex Meret prevented a costly away goal.

The complacency shown in the final stages could also be damaging, because Kalidou Koulibaly and Nikola Maksimovic will be suspended for the second leg.

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The Partenopei lost to Juventus at the weekend and went 16 points behind the Serie A leaders, so the Europa League was their only genuine remaining target. Lorenzo Insigne was rested in favour of Dries Mertens, while Mario Rui returned after a couple of weeks out injured. Red Bull Salzburg knocked Lazio and Borussia Dortmund out last season, so were not to be underestimated. Stefan Lainer, Fredrik Gulbrandsen and Zlatko Junuzovic returned after muscular problems, but Marin Pongracic was injured.

It was a very aggressive start from the Austrians, with Hannes Wolf and Munas Dabbur efforts testing Alex Meret, but at the other end Andre Ramalho made a decisive block on Fabian Ruiz inside the box.

However, Napoli won back possession and went on the counter, Mertens threading a perfect pass through for Arek Milik to spring the offside trap, go round the goalkeeper and deposit into an empty net. It was his first European goal of the season.

That goal completely changed the momentum of the match, as Fabian Ruiz saw his curler deflected over the bar and Kalidou Koulibaly nodded wide from a corner.

Patson Daka had the ball in the back of the net, but only after he had been flagged offside when Wolf caught Nikola Maksimovic napping.

Instead, Napoli doubled their lead in real style, as a corner floated to the edge of the area and Fabian Ruiz hit a spectacular left-foot volley that flew into the near bottom corner, possibly with a deflection off Milik.

Salzburg fought back, as Lainer’s ferocious strike was deflected wide off Koulibaly, but the Senegal international was booked for a mistimed tackle on Xaver Schlager and will be suspended for the second leg.

Napoli were caught napping straight after the restart, Wolf setting up Dabbur to shoot from 12 yards, but Meret used his legs to deflect the finish over the bar.

At the other end, Mertens was sent clear only to force a fingertip save from Alexander Walke to push it over the bar.

Schlager also went into the book and will be suspended, but Jerome Onguene was by far the worst performer of the night and topped it off with a comical own goal. He dived into the header to anticipate Milik, putting Mario Rui’s cross into the roof of the net.

It should’ve been 4-0 with a spectacular team move, as Callejon’s cushioned volley on a Mertens cross had beaten Walke, but Ramalho got back for a decisive goal-line clearance.

Guldbrandsen came very close to an away goal for Salzburg, drilling inches wide on to the side-netting, possibly even clipping the outside of the near post.

Milik thought he’d got the fourth when Ramalho misjudged a bounce and the Pole flicked it on past on-rushing Walke only to skim the empty net.

However, Napoli got complacent towards the end and risked giving away a cheap away goal. Guldbrandsen ran on to a Schlager through ball, cut back past Koulibaly and forced Meret into a desperate save. The pair clashed again in stoppages, the young goalkeeper getting down very quickly for a one-handed save on Guldbrandsen’s angled drive.

Maksimovic repeatedly lost possession and was booked, meaning he too will be suspended for the second leg.

Napoli 3-0 RB Salzburg

Milik 10 (N), Fabian 18 (N), Onguene og 58 (N)

Napoli: Meret; Hysaj, Maksimovic, Koulibaly, Mario Rui; Callejon, Allan, Fabian, Zielinski (Diawara 66); Mertens (Insigne 71), Milik (Ounas 81)

RB Salzburg: Walke; Lainer, Ramalho, Onguene, Ulmer; Schlager, Wolf, Samassekou, Junuzovic (Mwepu 62); Daka (Gulbrandsen 62), Dabbur (Minamino 75)

Ref: Kulbakov (BLR)