Napoli had taken a commanding 3-0 lead in Empoli despite missing a penalty, but eventually scraped the 3-2 for their first ever victory at the Castellani.
Maurizio Sarri returned to face his former club and his old assistant manager Giovanni Martusciello, but the Partenopei had never conquered the Stadio Castellani, managing just four draws from eight visits between Serie A and B. Kalidou Koulibaly was rested to avoid suspension against Juventus and Lorenzo Tonelli sidelined. Omar El Kaddouri took on the side he left in January, though Levan Mchedlidze, Andres Tello and Uros Cosic were injured.
The Tuscans had reason to feel anxious, as they had lost five on the bounce and were the closest team to the relegation zone. The big problem was goals, as the entire team had scored 15 in Serie A this season, whereas Dries Mertens alone had 19.
In the opening couple of minutes, Pepe Reina had a nervous moment when El Kaddouri anticipated a Marek Hamsik defensive header, but the goalkeeper got just enough on it.
There was some controversy when Napoli received an early penalty, as Andrea Costa’s clumsy challenge was certainly a foul on Mertens, but it’s really not clear whether it was inside the box. Nonetheless, the Belgian stepped up and his fairly central spot-kick was parried by Lukasz Skorupski’s outstretched foot. It was the goalkeeper’s (on loan from Roma) third penalty save in seven this season.
Hamsik’s acrobatic overhead kick was off target and Mame Thiam’s effort was charged down, but Costa was again poor when Napoli did break the deadlock.
It was a quick passing move between Mertens and Insigne down the left, Faouzi Ghoulam’s cross was only cleared by Costa as far as Insigne to fire home from eight yards.
Mertens made up for his earlier penalty error by converting a simply magnificent free kick from 25 yards out into the top corner, swerving inwards to make it unstoppable, even though Skorupski managed to get a hand to it.
Manuel Pasqual tripped Jose Callejon after a sensational first touch from the Spaniard and this time Insigne stepped up to convert the penalty, even if Skorupski got very close.
Thiam flashed a shot across the face of goal, but Empoli rarely threatened. After the restart, Callejon’s volley whistled wide and acrobatic Giuseppe Bellusci defending stopped Mertens meeting a Hamsik pass from close range.
Napoli started to ease off the gas and Thiam found more room, as he volleyed off target and then fired straight at Pepe Reina from point-blank range.
Empoli did finally get one back – and their 16th goal of the season – when El Kaddouri curled in a free kick against his former teammate Reina. It was a fine way to mark the Moroccan’s 100th Serie A appearance.
The game was surprisingly not over yet, because Faouzi Ghoulam tripped Rade Krunic from behind for another penalty and Massimo Maccarone converted to make it 3-2. It was Big Mac’s 100th goal in an Empoli jersey.
Suddenly Napoli were nervous, as their 3-0 lead had been almost completely eradicated. Maccarone scuffed wide after Thiam pulled back from the by-line.
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Saved pen: Mertens 6 (N)