After a thrilling 1-1 draw in Naples last week, Napoli traveled to the New San Mames in Bilbao for the second leg of their group stage qualifying tie against Athletic Club. Marek Hamsik opened the scoring in the second minute of the second half, but three goals in 14 minutes – a brace from Aritz Aduriz and one from substitute Ibai Gomez – saw Bilbao come from behind and win through to the Champions League group stage for the first time in nearly two decades.
Napoli were unlucky to not be ahead following the first leg, with several opportunities going begging in the final stages of the second half, as both teams were again lining up in their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Ernesto Valverde set his team up with an unchanged XI from the first leg, with key man Benat lining up in between the first-leg goalscorer Iker Muniain and right-winger Markel Susaeta.
Dries Mertens, after changing the game in Naples following his introduction in the second half, was afforded a start by Rafa Benitez, replacing Lorenzo Insigne while Faouzi Ghoulam came in for Britos for a completely new left side.
The opening minutes didn’t offer much in the way of chances, however Bilbao were looking to set the tempo early with quick passing and frenetic pressing of the Napoli players when they won possession and setting a high defensive line. The Napoli players were slightly more reserved, allowing the Bilbao centre-backs possession before closing down in the centre of the park – they were pressing the full length of the pitch from play restarts however, trying to force Iraizoz to play long but the goalkeeper’s distribution was impressive to retain possession. Higuain was drifting in the channels looking to find space between the defenders and break through on goal with Hamsik looking for direct balls into the Argentine.
With Bilbao pressing high and committing numbers forward, Napoli’s approach was looking dangerous if they could time the run and the pass.
Both Higuain and Aduriz were put through on goal in the first 10 minutes but were ruled offside, with the latter perhaps being the wrong decision; although Rafael managed to keep his low shot out anyway. Higuain fired a left-footed shot from 25 yards just wide of Iraizoz’s left-hand post after 15 minutes, however neither ‘keeper had a meaningful save to make as space to create opportunities was at a premium in the first 20 minutes.
A set-piece, perhaps expectedly considering the defensive organisation of both sides, provided the first proper chance as Gupergui managed to steal a yard on his defender but his six-yard box header went a metre wide.
As the game wore on and Bilbao continued to dominate possession, they started to find some luck down the right-hand side. Susaeta was checking his runs, moving inside and then out, and through balls from the right-back De Marcos were allowing the winger to get in behind the defence. With Napoli doubling up on left-winger Iker Muniain, there was a bit more space on the right through quick switches of play so the approach seemed logical.
The strategy nearly paid off in the 27th minute, when another dangerous ball from the right was spilled by Rafael and allowed to go out for a corner. The ensuing corner was cleared back out to Muniain on the right-hand edge of the box, and his whipped ball evaded the goalkeeper and fell to Laporte on the six-yard box but he couldn’t keep his first-time half-volley under the bar with an empty net presenting itself.
Bilbao probably edged a cagey but entertaining first half with 60% of the possession, while first-leg goalscorers Muniain and Higuain looking the most likely to create something from open play – one with his skill on the ball and the other with his movement.
Kalidou Koulibaly was a beast for Napoli and key to their first-half clean sheet. The French centre-back was winning everything in the air and making some crucial interceptions to keep the Bilbao front four at bay.
Napoli opened the scoring through Marek Hamsik immediately after the restart. A ball was floated into the far-post but Balenziaga’s headed clearance went straight to Hamsik on the edge of the box. The Napoli captain had one touch to set himself before firing a left-footed shot into the bottom right corner to give the Italians a 2-1 lead on aggregate.
The second half was likely to see a more aggressive and attacking approach from Napoli, who were behind on away goals, but the early goal meant the Italian side could sit a little deeper with the Basques again controlling possession.
Iraizoz made a crucial interception in the 54th minute when Callejon raced onto a through ball from haflway after Muniain had turned over possession. The Basque goalkeeper rushed out of his box and swept up well, preventing what could have been a dagger through the heart of Bilbao’s chances of progression to the group stage.
A set-piece leveled things up for Bilbao, when Aduriz peeled to the back post and lost his marker who was cleverly blocked by Gupergui. Such was the time Aduriz had he was able to bring the ball down before shooting into the bottom corner beyond Rafael, putting them back on level terms at 2-2.
Less than 10 minutes later Bilbao went ahead thanks to a dreadful defensive mix up. A long cleared ball up field by De Marcos was chased down by Aduriz with three Napoli players seemingly having it covered. Albiol dwelled before attempting to clear as the goalkeeper Rafael came rushing out, but with a lack of communication Aduriz was able to poke a toe at the ball, taking him around both players before slotting home into an empty net to the roars of the San Mames.
Napoli brought Lorenzo Insigne on for Hamsik, looking for fresh legs in the final third as Benitez’s side needed to take the game to the home side, but it was Bilbao who scored the next and ultimately tie-killing goal; with two Basque substitutes playing the key roles.
Ibai Gomez, who had come on for Benat in the 58th minute, pounced on another Napoli defensive error. Unai Lopez, the 18-year-old hailed as the next Ander Herrera who had replaced Susaeta only a few minutes prior, played a through ball to Aduriz who was comfortably offside. With the Napoli defence switching off though, and Aduriz not playing the ball, Ibai Gomez sped through from the left flank ahead of Maggio, latching onto the pass and dispatching it into the goal to secure the tie for Athletic, who will be making their first appearance in the Champions League-proper for the first time in nearly two decades.
Aduriz could’ve had his hat-trick, when the ball was fizzed across to him on the six-yard box in the 81st minute but the target man lacked the composure of his earlier finishes and put an absolute sitter over the bar.
Bilbao’s spirit, fighting and scrapping for everything even when it appeared lost, was crucial in their win and with an impressive performance and the heart to come from behind against a team such as Napoli will give them confidence heading into the group stage that they can leave their mark on the tournament.
For Napoli it is a disappointing result, and Rafa Benitez must be wondering how it is the Italians had been given such a difficult draw to qualify for the tournament; especially after finishing equal first in their group alongside Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund but going out on head to head.
Tonight though, it was a night for the Basques to savour as the city of Bilbao will be partying into the early morning.