Bologna Somehow Scrape a PointBy: Neil | January 20th, 2014
It’s very tempting to look at an incident in the final minutes – in particular Bologna’s tying goal which turned a Napoli win into a draw – and to let it stand as the defining moment of the match. Bologna fans surely want to do this, which illustrates something: Napoli was superior for most of the match, and the final score has a hint of injustice around it. It’s not that the Bologna goals were suspect; in fact they were both valid, well taken goals. But other than that Bologna struggled and relied on using a physical approach on a soaked pitch to scrape a draw. We’ll get to the Napoli mistakes after the jump, but over the 90 minutes it has to be said that Napoli was in a position to win… and the on field conditions, i.e. the rain and Bologna’s attempt to manipulate the ref, made it a more difficult contest than it should have been. We can’t use harsh language and accuse Napoli of “throwing away a win” but we can say that some draws are hard to swallow and this one certainly is.
First, let me start by disagreeing with the fact that Napoli should have scored a third goal to put Bologna away once and for all. Ahead 2-1 with 10 minutes left should be enough for a team of Napoli’s quality to claim the points. As good as Napoli’s offence is, you can’t expect them to score at will. And the Kone red card came with just 5 minutes left, or 4 minutes before it became a tie game again. So there was really very little time for Napoli to make use of their numerical advantage. I thought two goals was enough to win, and it was Napoli’s defence that was the letdown and not the offence.
Second, referee Damato had a difficult game as the Bologna players (and manager) were resorting to gamesmanship at times. In fact, Ballardini was suspended one game for “blasphemous remarks” towards the referee, which kind of sums up Bologna’s approach. I don’t know what the blasphemous remarks were, but overall Damato had an acceptable game – he got the major decisions right (there weren’t that many) and if anything he was too lenient to the Bologna players who accused Napoli players of diving when they were clearly fouled, and charged him and surrounded him when the penalty was called. That was a cast iron penalty in my opinion, and it’s amazing a Bologna player wasn’t sent off right there as one of them made slight contact with Damato. If Damato was giving yellow cards for dissent, it’s possible Bologna could have finished the game with 7 or 8 players. Still, Napoli can’t blame the ref as his calls were good enough even if he was overly tolerant of Bologna’s questionable strategies.
In the end the draw can be chalked up to problems in centre defence and bad luck. Albiol had an off game, and Fernandez did not exactly pick up the slack and take command of the backline. Even though Albiol was perhaps at fault on the tying goal — he claims he was pushed which the video supports — it was Fernandez who was really in no man’s land. The Argentine did not track Bianchi and didn’t clear the ball either. I think we can let Albiol off the hook as he has been Napoli’s best defender about 80-90% of the time this season. But I’m beginning to have serious doubts about Fernandez. He’s a good, serviceable player but not the dominant force you’d like to have competing against elite Italian teams and Champions League teams. I often ripped Mazzarri (and I still do even though he’s gone) but he may have been right about Fernandez. There’s something way too timid about his play for a central defender. He’s tall but not aerially strong, and he’s not quite as mobile as you’d like, especially from a young player.
Even with an uninspired central defence Napoli could have held Bologna to just one goal, but Bianchi took both of the chances he was given and deserves some credit. In the end Bologna had just 2 shots on goal and they both went in. Aside from that they created very little offensively, and it’s one of those days that leaves you frustrated. Bologna did a perfect imitation of Stoke City in the Tony Pulis era, and muscled their way to an unlikely draw despite the other team being better at just about everything else that relates to calcio.
It’s easy to criticize Benitez for playing Mertens and Pandev instead of Insigne and Hamsik, but I’m not going to do this. Sure, Pandev showed his limitations again but it’s actually been a long while since Napoli tasted defeat and I think Benitez got it right by sticking with a formula that had consistently been getting good results. Pandev struggles with Champions League caliber teams, but he’s still useful for provincial teams: remember his 2 goals against Genoa? Overall he has 6 goals and 3 assists in 13 Serie A starts, which is a decent record. I will be the first to admit that he didn’t do very much against Bologna, and there’s no way he should start every match. But to dump on Pandev as the only reason Napoli drew 2-2 is a joke, he could do nothing about the two Bologna goals and Bologna actually defended quite well in the first half, so it’s unfair to label Pandev as a scapegoat.
If Benitez made one mistake it’s not putting on another defender with his last sub, which went unused. When you look at Napoli’s lineup it cries out weakness on set plays. It was even an issue when Cannavaro and Britos were the central defence pairing, and I’m pretty sure those two players are better at heading than Fernandez and Albiol. I wouldn’t say either player is as good as Albiol in terms of skill and reading the game, but when it comes to heading Canna and Britos are the two best defenders Napoli have; not even Reveillere, Maggio, Zuniga, or Armero can clear corners like Il Capitano and Britos. So I am asking Benitez to address the issue either by making better use of the centre backs that he has, or by buying another one in the transfer window. We can’t expect Albiol to play every minute of every match at a high level, which is almost exactly what he’s done so far this season. And even though Benitez rates Fernandez highly, I’ve seen him struggle too many times on balls played through the air into the Napoli box. So it’s Napoli one weakness right now, and sadly it cost Napoli points against a beatable team in Bologna.
That’s my assessment of the game. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Benitez had the team in position to win, which has happened every game this season except for a handful (Juve and Roma in the league, and Arsenal and Dortmund away) We just need defensive reinforcements to close out matches, the blown leads against Udinese (twice in the same game) and now Bologna illustrate that Napoli needs to be a little stronger at the back.