Three Points: Athletic Bilbao vs. Napoli
Three quick thoughts from Athletic Bilbao's 3-1 (4-2 aggregate) win over Napoli in the UEFA Champions League playoff, which puts them through to the group stage.
1. Athletic were really good
Everything went right for Athletic Bilbao in the first half, except the ball would not go in the net. Then, seconds into the second period -- from their first real chance -- visitor Napoli went in front. For an inexperienced side looking to make the Champions League group stage for the first time in 16 years, this could have been a body blow.
The team, and the 50,000 home fans inside the ground, took a few minutes to take stock and then just came again. Mikel Balenziaga, who had been at fault for Napoli's opener, forced a save from Rafael Cabral with a rasping 25-yarder. And the crowd roared again.
Even when Athletic owned the ball in the first half, their best chances had come from set pieces. The equaliser did too.
It was poor defending from Napoli on the corner, but Aritz Aduriz showed remarkable cool to take the ball on his chest inside the six-yard box and slot home. He then showed excellent anticipation to take advantage of confusion between Cabral and centre-back Raul Albiol to nick the ball ahead of both and tap into the empty net.
Aduriz again played a role in the clinching third goal -- although by cleverly not touching the ball as he must have known he was offside and instead allowing Ibai Gomez to run clear and fire past a stranded Cabral. That eased the pressure all around, and everyone knew the tie was over. There was even time for Aduriz to miss an open goal and for the home fans to react with wry smiles.
The former Valencia centre-forward was the only player in his side with previous Champions League experience. But he and his teammates showed great character to come back so quickly from the hammer blow of conceding right after the break, especially considering this was the biggest game of their careers.
Ander Iturraspe controlled the second half from deep midfield, revealing why Athletic fans were so happy to hear the rumours of Bayern Munich's interest in Xabi Alonso; Pep Guardiola was apparently interested in Iturraspe first. Aymeric Laporte, 20, was again superbly composed at centre-half, dealing calmly with Napoli's only real threat in Gonzalo Higuain. There was a buzz whenever Iker Muniain, 21, touched the ball, and the winger was excellent in working back and annoying Napoli's ball-players in midfield.
All these players now have three more games to show they belong in Europe's biggest club competition.
2. Napoli were really bad
While Napoli were not at all good in the first 45 minutes, there was still a feeling at halftime that the Italian side was well in the tie. A tight game suited supposed master tactician Rafael Benitez, who through his career has shown an ability to eke out results over two legs.
Then just after the break, Marek Hamsik -- who had barely influenced the game in the opening half -- fired home from 25 yards after taking a touch to control a weak Balenziaga clearing header and then another to arrow a low strike to the bottom corner. Up 1-0 away from home, this situation was apparently made for an Italian team and their Spanish coach.
Benitez made his first substitution, taking off Faouzi Ghoulam at left-back to send on Miguel Britos, who did not have a good game in the first leg. The thinking was not immediately clear, and within a few minutes, the teams were level again.
Benitez's sides have been criticised for their setup when defending set pieces before, and there was clearly something badly awry as Aduriz was able to take a corner down on his knee inside the six-yard box and still had time to pick his spot.
From there the Italian side, which had shown such spirit and organisation against Dortmund and Arsenal in the competition last season, self-destructed. The mix-up in communication between Albiol and Cabral for the second goal was comical unless you were a Napoli fan, while an attempt at an offside trap was almost equally farcical as Aduriz had time to leave the ball for Ibai to come racing through and knock in the third.
Napoli had 13 players at this summer's World Cup in Brazil -- compared to zero from Athletic -- and the Serie A season has yet to start, so they came into the tie undercooked. But they knew that was going to happen, had the greater experience on the pitch and the bench and even managed to go 2-1 up on aggregate but still seemed physically and mentally unprepared for the task they were facing.
3. New San Mames deserved this
There was a huge roar as the teams took the pitch for what was the first game inside the newly redeveloped San Mames Stadium -- with last year's games having been played here with one side not yet completed. The 50,000 home fans roared with every won tackle, and their support clearly galvanised the players. This was especially important when things were not going Athletic's way at times.
In the first half, when centre-backs Laporte and Carlos Gurpegi both missed good chances from set pieces, there were gasps of disbelief around the ground, a few seconds of silence and then rallying cheers to tell their team to forget it and go on again. Even when Athletic fell behind, the support barely wavered from the stands, and once the equaliser went in, the cheering and clapping did not let up until far after the final whistle.
Supporters who had camped out for two nights to get the last remaining tickets, which were quickly sold out on Monday morning, were making sure they enjoyed every second of this. Now they will be hungry for at least three more big nights out.
Ernesto Valverde's side will be in Pot 3 in Thursday's draw, and nobody will fancy coming to the New San Mames. Athletic saw off huge European clubs, including Manchester United, Juventus, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Inter, on famous nights at the old "cathedral." Last season, with one end of the new cathedral still a building site, Athletic defeated Barcelona in a 1-0 that could have been 3-0 and worried Real Madrid so much that Cristiano Ronaldo was sent off in a 1-1 draw.
Athletic's achievement is even greater with the club having lost internationals Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente through recent summers and Ander Herrera this summer. But they could now bring in more Basque-qualified players such as Asier Illarramendi from Real Madrid and Nacho Monreal from Arsenal. You could see why any player would want to come home and play in a stadium like this. Although it is unclear if Illarramendi or Monreal would get into this XI on current form.