Milik, Mertens star as Napoli outclass Benfica
Arkaduisz Milik struck his third Champions League goal and Dries Mertens hit a brace as Napoli underlined their last 16 credentials with a 4-2 win against Benfica on Wednesday.
Milik, signed as a replacement for Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain, headed a brace in a 2-1 come-from-behind win at Dinamo Kiev a fortnight ago to hand coach Maurizio Sarri his maiden win in the competition.
An “emotional” Sarri had warned of the threat posed by the Portuguese champions in the build-up.
But despite glimpses of promise and a brilliant consolation goal by 19-year-old sensation Goncalo Guedes, added to by Salvio’s 85th minute strike, the visitors were no match for last season’s Serie A runners-up on their way to seeing a 17-match unbeaten run come to an end.
The shine was taken off a highly emotional night for Sarri by Benfica’s late goals, but he said: “At 4-0 I was happy for the lads, to do that to a team of their standing is not easy.
“They’re not an easy side to play against, so we did well in that respect. I just regret the late goals we conceded.
“They were more our fault and it leaves a bitter taste because we had the game under control.
“But it will serve us as a lesson, that at this level you get punished.”
Napoli fans had not been treated to Champions League football since 2013, when a side led by Walter Mazzarri were eliminated behind Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.
And after a one-sided opening half, the San Paolo stadium was not left disappointed.
Milik tested Julio Cesar with a toe-poke inside just 20 seconds and after Kostas Mitroglou was twice denied by Pepe Reia at the other end, Napoli’s formidable midfield moved up a gear.
Jose Callejon was poised to pull the trigger on Dries Mertens’s superb cross-field ball until Alex Grimaldo’s timely intervention deep on the right.
It gave Napoli a corner, and from Faouzi Ghoulam’s delivery Marek Hamsik was on hand at the near post to glance a header past former Inter Milan ‘keeper Cesar.
Cesar, who won the treble with Inter in 2010, admitted Tuesday he had no recollection of winning at the San Paolo in seven successful years with the Nerazzurri.
Benfica coach Rui Vitoria must have wished he had taken the keeper’s admission as a portent as Napoli hit three quick-fire goals in succession after the restart.
But he refused to blame Julio Cesar afterwards.
“My opinion about my goalkeepers hasn’t changed since before the game. I have faith in my goalkeepers’ ability and, as always, whoever gives me the best guarantees will play,” said Vitoria.
But the Benfica coach must have been wondering just how Paulo Lopes would have fared between the goalposts.
When Lisandro Lopez hauled down Mertens just inside the area, the Belgian’s superb curling free kick from outside the area left Cesar rooted to the spot.
Three minutes later, Milik stepped up to score from the spot after the ‘keeper’s foul on Callejon.
Vitoria replaced central midfielder Andrea Horta with Eduardo Salvio, and minutes later Napoli stretched their lead to 4-0 after Cesar spilled Callejon’s right wing cross to see Mertens convert at the second attempt.
“There were seven or eight minutes in which we completely lost focus,” admitted Vitoria.
It was the first time in Napoli’s history they had scored four goals in major European competition, and the score would have been more emphatic without some slack defending in the final 20 minutes.
Guedes replaced Carillo on 67 minutes and only three minutes later pounced on Jorginho’s poor pass back to round Reina and fire into the roof of the net from a tight angle.
Napoli tired in the final five minutes and when Salvio’s pace took him past Ghoulam, a soft touch saw him beat Reina.
It was Benfica’s second consolation of the night but might not be enough to rescue a group campaign that started with a 1-1 draw at home to Besiktas.