Goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz performed late heroics for Athletic Bilbao as he kept Napoli at bay and ensured honours remained even at 1-1 after the first leg of the UEFA Champions League play-off tie.
He made smart saves from Dries Mertens and then Gonzalo Higuain from point-blank range to leave the tie up in the air at Stadio San Paolo, with the second leg to be played at San Mames next week.
Former Real Madrid man Higuain equalised with a fine individual effort midway through the second half to cancel out Iker Muniain’s opener three minutes before the break and that leaves things finely poised with a place in the group stages up for grabs.
Napoli boss Rafael Benitez was taking charge of his 150th match in European football last night – a stretch that has seen him win this competition with Liverpool, as well as the UEFA Europa League with Valencia and Chelsea.
His side created the first decent chance of the game in the seventh minute with Lorenzo Insigne almost latching onto a clever lofted ball but striking thin air with his attempted volley.
At the other end, Aymeric Laporte nodded just off target from a corner while Aritz Aduriz saw his header well held by Rafael in the Napoli net.
Ernesto Valverde’s men struck the first blow with just three first-half minutes remaining, as Oscar de Marcos embarked on a strong run down the right before pulling the ball across for Muniain to take a touch and calmly slot the ball home.
Bilbao could have doubled their lead early in the second half when former Real defender Raul Albiol did not clear properly, but Aduriz could not quite react quickly enough to direct home Mikel Roco’s shot.
Mertens was introduced by Benitez on the hour-mark and that seemed to breathe life into the hosts, as Higuain equalised eight minutes later.
The Argentine had not been firing on all cylinders at all but he popped up when needed most – latching onto Marek Hamsik’s chipped pass before jinking past a couple of defenders and drilling his shot into the far corner through the legs of Mikel Balenziaga.
Within two minutes, another former Galactico, Jose Callejon, wasted a guilt-edge opportunity to complete the turnaround for the Italians. Running onto Higuain’s through-ball, he sold Iraizoz a dummy but shot wide of the target with the keeper down.
Former Celta Vigo and Rayo Vallecano striker Michu came off the bench for the home side following his loan move from English Premier League side Swansea City, and spurned a glaring chance himself shortly after his entrance.
The ball broke for him in the area but rather than slot home a certain second goal, he mysteriously made an aimless pass to Higuain seemingly under the impression that the whistle had blown.
Mertens then drew a decent save out of Iraizoz in the final 10 minutes before the Belgian got down the left-hand side soon after. His pull-back was met by Higuain, who was brilliantly denied by a point-blank range by the Bilbao stopper.
The La Liga side then escaped following a massive error of judgement from their defence, as the ball ran for Higuain who blazed high from a tight angle with the goalkeeper’s presence in front of him.
A game of two halves really; Bilbao looked good value for their half-time lead but Napoli were far and away the better side in the second and were quite unfortunate not to be taking a lead to San Mames next week.
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