Villarreal will take a narrow first-leg advantage to Naples after Denis Suárez’s thunderbolt of a free-kick earned the spoils in a tight UEFA Europa League round of 32 encounter at the Estadio El Madrigal.
It was nip and tuck throughout as Napoli – the group stage’s top scorers – were kept at bay by a well-disciplined defensive performance from the hosts. Marcelino’s team were rewarded when Suárez’s right-footed effort from 25 metres zipped over the wall and crashed into Pepe Reina’s net via the underside of the crossbar with eight minutes remaining.
No side had conceded fewer goals in the group stage than Napoli, but the visitors almost gifted the opener to Roberto Soldado. Dragged out wide, Reina’s scuffed clearance presented the Villarreal No9 with an open goal from 30 metres. However, the Napoli keeper ate up the metres and flung himself wildly in the way of the shot, the last-gasp intervention preventing serious embarrassment.
Maurizio Sarri’s men had struck 22 times in Group D yet opportunities were thin on the ground. Manolo Gabbiadini had two half-chances fall his way, screwing a low attempt wide before just failing to get a toe on Dries Mertens’s teasing cross from the left.
Soldado failed to connect with a Léo Baptistão centre when free in the middle before José Callejón timed a run perfectly to connect with Mirko Valdifiori’s delightful dinked ball over the top of the home defence; however, the Napoli winger guided it wide with only Alphonse Aréola to beat. Mertens then blazed over from an angle and it looked as if the teams would head to Italy all square – but Suárez had other ideas.
Key player: Denis Suárez (Villarreal)
A UEFA Europa League winner last season with Sevilla, the 22-year-old obviously loves this competition. Even before his decisive and devastating free-kick, the former Manchester City prospect had impressed on the left flank. A running battle with Ivan Strinić proved entertaining throughout, with the Villarreal attacker’s deft feet and subtle movement helping him win that battle on points.
Halting Hamšík proves vital
Napoli captain Marek Hamšík had faced Villarreal three times previously with the club and scored on every occasion. However, the sequence came to a halt as the hosts never let the deep-lying playmaker get more than an arm’s length away from a marker. It was a similar story with Callejón and Mertens – ten goals and five assists between them in the group stage – who were rarely given a spare second to wreak the havoc they have usually caused.
Villarreal make most of home comforts
Four home games in this 2015/16 competition and four wins for the Yellow Submarine. Not only that, their defence remains unbreached on home turf. That record looked under threat at the start of play as the heavy artillery of Napoli rolled into town, but the Spaniards did not yield any ground and earned themselves a great chance of making the last 16.