Napoli were held 1-1 at home by Athletic Bilbao in the Champions League play-off thanks to stunning Gorka Iraizoz saves.
Both clubs agreed this was the worst Champions League play-off draw they could’ve had, but only one will go through to the competition proper. Rafa Benitez surprisingly picked Miguel Angel Britos and Walter Gargano ahead of Faouzi Ghoulam and Gokhan Inler, while Kalidou Koulibaly was the only new signing in the starting XI, as Gargano returned from loan at Parma. Athletic finished fourth in La Liga last season and only have players of Basque origin in their squad.
Marek Hamsik nodded over straight away, then a Jorginho pass was chipped over the defence for Lorenzo Insigne, who clear on goal hit a fresh-air volley in a great scoring opportunity.
Athletic also went extremely close, as Aymeric Laporte was allowed a free header from a corner that went inches wide of the near post. The Spaniards were again dangerous in the air, as Aritz Aduriz saw his looping header plucked out of the air by Rafael.
Athletic were increasing the pressure as the half wore on and took the lead at the end of a fast-paced move. Oscar de Marcos burst down the right and pulled back for Iker Muniain, who had too much space and time to pick his spot in the near bottom corner.
Away goals do count if the scores are all square on aggregate in this tie, so that was a devastating psychological blow just before half-time.
After the restart Aduriz deflected and Mikel Roco wayward effort off target, while Jose Callejon’s poor clearance from a corner was almost very costly.
Dries Mertens replaced Insigne and the only native Neapolitan in the crowd was loudly jeered off the field, much to his irritation.
Napoli got their equaliser thanks to Higuain’s fantastic solo strike, as he dribbled through a crowd of Athletic shirts and placed the angled drive across Gorka Iraizoz into the far bottom corner. That was Pipita’s ninth goal in just 11 games against Athletic.
It should’ve been 2-1 moments later on the counter, as Callejon sprung the offside trap on Higuain’s through ball only to blast wide of the near stick.
Michu came on for Hamsik and immediately turned a diving header off target when off balance, but moments later he wasted a golden opportunity by passing square to Callejon – whose effort was charged down – when he should’ve gone for goal from the penalty spot.
Napoli were pouring forward in these closing stages and Iraizoz flew to parry a brilliant Mertens curler, then the Belgian burst down the left and pulled back for Higuain to force an incredible one-handed reaction save from point-blank range.
It was all Napoli now and Higuain fired over from five yards following a defensive error, but Athletic held on under pressure for a valuable draw. It means the Partenopei need a victory at the San Mames, or a score draw with more than two goals. A 1-1 will force extra time.
Napoli 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
Scorers: Muniain 41 (A), Higuain 68 (N)
Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Britos; Gargano, Jorginho; Callejon, Hamsik (Michu 78), Insigne (Mertens 61); Higuain
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Gurpegi, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe (Moran 89), Mikel Rico; Susaeta (Ibai Gomez 80), Benat (San Jose 75), Muniain; Aduriz
Ref: Eriksson (SWE)
Think you know your Italian football? Share your knowledge, tips and comments to win cash prizes in OLBG's tipster competition - £11,000 to be won monthly!