Athletic Bilbao vs. Napoli: Winners and Losers from Champions League Qualifier
Athletic Bilbao celebrated their first official game at the stunning new San Mames stadium by qualifying for the Champions League group stages with a 3-1 win over Napoli in their second-leg play-off clash.
Athletic had never lost againt Italian opposition at the old San Mames, and they continued their excellent home record at the upgraded venue with a brilliant performance against the Italians, which completed a 4-2 aggregate victory.
Aritz Aduriz scored a double and Ibai Gomez added a third in front of a vibrant home crowd after Marek Hamsik had put the Italians ahead against the run of play at the start of the second half.
Here are the winners and losers from this entertaining encounter.
Loser: Raul Albiol
The biggest loser of the night was no doubt Raul Albiol.
The Napoli defence never looked comfortable handling Athletic corners, and the pressure finally told just after the hour when Aduriz found himself alone in the six-yard box.
The striker had peeled off the back of a large group of players. His marker, Albiol, was unable to follow after finding his path blocked. While he was slightly unlucky to find himself behind a wall of bodies, the former Real Madrid man is paid to deal with such situations as a central defender.
In this case, he failed to do so adequately.
He made an even more glaring error which resulted in the Spanish side's second goal by allowing Aduriz to sneak past him and steal possession as the ball travelled back toward the Napoli goal.
Goalkeeper Rafael Cabral can take some of the blame for that one, but both should hang their heads at a shocking lack of communication.
On Athletic's third goal, Albiol was once again in the thick of things. This time, he failed to track Ibai after assuming the flag was going to be raised for an Aduriz offside.
The flag was not raised, however, and the Bilbao club had the Napoli defender to thank for another simple goal.
Winner: Aritz Aduriz
It was a true striker's performance from Athletic's big front man, Aduriz.
The forward was given little to work with in the first half, but he fed off the mistakes of the opposition defenders to snare two goals after the break.
He may have found himself alone in the box for his first strike, but he nonetheless did very well to bring the ball down with a single touch and finish coolly.
His second goal was just as opportunistic. He capitalised on the mix-up between the goalkeeper and Albiol to slide the ball into the net.
Aduriz also showed great awareness on his side's third goal by avoiding playing the ball when he realised he was offside, which enabled play to continue and his teammate to sneak in and score.
Winner: Benat Etxebarria
He was substituted in the 58th minute, but it is unlikely that Benat Etxebarria was removed because his manager was unhappy with his performance. The playmaker put in a fine showing.
Playing just in front of the Napoli defence, Benat was not only a handful for the Italians whenever Athletic swept forward, he also put in a tremendous amount of effort defensively to press the blue shirts whenever they had the ball.
His toil was probably the reason he had to come off after an hour or so, as he was no doubt exhausted, but it was also the cause for much frustration for the Italian side.
The build up of pressure caused by Benat and the other Athletic players' hard work off the ball contributed to Napoli's capitulation in the second half.
Loser: Rafael Cabral
Napoli goalkeeper Rafael made a couple of fine reflex saves on the night, but his overall performance left a lot to be desired.
He was certainly partially at fault for Athletic's second goal, and he could have reacted faster to the danger as the corner came in before the first.
Even in the first half, when the Spanish team didn't have any clear-cut chances on goal, the Brazilian keeper looked shaky on crosses and nearly put his side in danger on a number of occasions.
Winner: Gonzalo Higuain
Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain was one of the few Napoli players who really looked up for this contest, but he received very little useful service.
When he did get the ball, he was like a raging bull, bustling past defenders with strength and speed to create chances for himself.
If his teammates had managed to send the ball into his feet more regularly and in better positions, Napoli may have found a second goal and changed the outlook of the fixture.
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