City left facing early exit after Cavani's fireworks in Dante's Inferno
Manchester City 1
Published 23/11/2011 | 05:00
Manchester City ran into a wall of sound here last night, into a stadium heaving with supporters who backed their team with unremitting fervour.
They ran into clever, counter-attacking opponents in Napoli, who seized the initiative in the race for second place in Group A of the Champions League.
For those claiming the group stage is boring, Roberto Mancini's side now face the toughest of assignments at home to Bayern Munich. The Germans may have qualified but they would enjoy nothing more than sending the big-spenders into the Europa League.
Mancini's men had stepped into this Italian cauldron knowing they had to silence the fervent locals. The tifosi never stopped their pyrotechnics. This was Dante's Inferno with a running track.
This was a brutal test of City's ambition and Mario Balotelli's capabilities. The Italian's equaliser, his main first-half contribution, came with him in the centre but Balotelli had lined up on the left of City's attack, joining the excellent James Milner and David Silva in working the ball towards Edin Dzeko. With Yaya Toure and the unconvincing Nigel de Jong anchoring, City braced themselves for the Napoli storm. It soon arrived, a series of elegant, fast-moving zephyrs flying at them, time after time.
Even before Edinson Cavani helped plunge City into trouble, Napoli had given notice of their counter-attacking threat, making light of a troubled pre-match build-up. A fire had broken out in their hotel and then the pregnant wife of Marek Hamsik was car-jacked.
Hamsik insisted on playing, joining Cavani and the outstanding Ezequiel Lavezzi in that dexterous attacking triumvirate. City were rattled by the Italians' pace and tempo.
When Toure lost the ball, Lavezzi sped down the right, lifting in a cross that Hamsik headed straight at Joe Hart, who endured a difficult evening.
Again came Napoli, Gokhlan Inler letting fly from 25 yards, his rising drive forcing Hart into an athletic tip-over. The hosts made full use of the corner. When Lavezzi swung the ball towards the near post, Hart and his defenders were found badly wanting. Maybe Napoli's coach, Walter Mazzarri, had been studying them closely. Hesitation riddled City's defensive ramparts. Cavani was first to the delivery, flicking it past Hart. Game on. Noise up.
Here was a test for City, a test of their character and discipline. With Silva springing to life and Milner rising to the challenge, City responded impressively for the rest of the half. With a little help from their hosts.
Napoli gifted City their equaliser 12 minutes from the break. Salvatore Aronica granted the ball to Silva, never a wise move, and the little Spanish magician fired in a shot which Morgan de Sanctis failed to hold. Balotelli, unmarked and a yard out, tapped home the rebound for his ninth goal in 10 games. He 'celebrated' morosely.
If against the run of play, the goal immediately breathed confidence into City. Silva, hitherto subdued, began weaving his magic.
Controlling Balotelli's wonderful cross-field pass, Silva slipped a ball down the inside-left channel to Aleksandar Kolarov, whose low shot was saved by De Sanctis.
As the half-time whistle went, City had every reason to feel pleased with their response, although Balotelli looked under the weather and was reported to have thrown up as he left the field. City were certainly sickened three minutes into the second half, when Napoli regained the lead with another quick-fire attack.
This time it was Andrea Dossena, once not very successfully of Liverpool, on the overlap, cutting the ball back for Cavani to shoot goalwards. The shot contained sufficient venom but Hart could have done better. He got a hand to the ball but it carried on, and he looked back in anger as the ball continued into the net. More noise.
After Cavani's second, they almost fell further behind. Hamsik pulled the strings for Napoli this time, releasing the wonderful Lavezzi, who darted past Vincent Kompany and only the superb reflexes of Hart rescued City.
City remained vulnerable on the counter as Hamsik rounded Kolarov and almost snapped the post.
As the game became even more frantic, as the fans risked going totally hoarse, City almost levelled but De Sanctis somehow denied Balotelli.
The drama was relentless, the noise unstinting. And then came that final whistle, greeted with utter abandon by Napoli.
Some noise. Some night. Some task ahead for City. (© Daily Telegraph, London)