Athletic Bilbao will like where they stand heading home after grabbing a draw against Napoli in Italy.
The Neapolitans were on top from the start, and they should have taken the lead 7 minutes in. Jorginho found Lorenzo Insigne with a brilliant ball over the top of the defense, but Insigne whiffed on his half-volley attempt while one-on-one with Gorka Iraizoz.
Slowly, Athletic Bilbao started to take more control over the game, and Napoli’s chances dwindled. As the half wore on, the Azzurri found it difficult to pass the ball out of their own half without resorting to a longball, and Athletic finally took advantage of their newfound dominance.
Oscar de Marcos set up Iker Muniain’s go-ahead goal in the 41st minute with a darting direct run down the left flank and a square ball toward the top of the box. Muniain had plenty of time and space to take a touch and steady himself before placing a shot to Rafael’s left, though it wasn’t struck with much power. The Napoli goalkeeper was screened by his own defenders, though, and was late getting across his goalmouth, causing him to completely miss the ball.
Athletic set out to play for the clean sheet from the start of the second half, and they might have been successful if it wasn’t for a piece of individual brilliance by Gonzalo Higuain. In the 68th minute, he touched down a lobbed pass from Marek Hamsik, beat two defenders with his second touch, then got a step on a third defender. He was running away from goal and didn’t look like he was going to be able to score, but he placed a perfect shot to the back post, and there was nothing Iraizoz could do about it.
Iraizoz did come up huge on other occasions later in the game, however. In the 78th minute, Michu entered for a tired Hamsik, and it proved to be a spark for Napoli. Fellow substitute Dries Mertens had a screamer parried away in the 83rd minute and Iraizoz came up with an even better save a minute after that, denying Higuain from point-blank range. One further minute after that, at the end of an insane spell of dominance for Napoli, Higuain blazed a close-range shot just over the crossbar.
Napoli’s late push was impressive, but ultimately, it didn’t result in a goal, and they’ll head to the Basque Country as the underdogs in this tie.
Napoli: Rafael, Koulibaly, Britos, Albiol, Maggio, Gargano, Jorginho, Insigne (Mertens 60′), Hamsik (Michu 78′), Callejon, Higuain
Goals: Higuain (68′)
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz, Balenziaga, Laporte, Gurpegui, De Marcos, Itsurrape (Moran 88′), Rico, Muniain, Beñat (San Jose 75′), Susaeta (Gomez 80′), Aduriz
Goals: Muniain (41′)Follow @Football7x24