Man City get off to flying start, hold on for dear life in 2-1 win over Napoli
MANCHESTER, England -- Three points from the Etihad on Manchester City's 2-1 win over Napoli in the UEFA Champions League.
1. City ride out Napoli's revival
It began with Manchester City destroying an opponent in the manner that has become habitual in English football. Napoli, currently top of Serie A, scoring goals at a rate not seen for decades, were being put to the sword, and swiftly, behind strikes from Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus.
But then came a revival from Napoli that asked plenty of questions of City. By the end, they were clinging on, and had ridden out quite the onslaught of an opponent who do not possess their aesthetic brilliance, but have plenty of quality.
When Sterling opened the scoring in the ninth minute, a procession seemed in session. By then, Napoli had been bamboozled by the pressing and passing that Pep Guardiola now commands from his team.
Leroy Sane sped down the left, his diagonal ball finding David Silva who from the byline found Kyle Walker. When his shot was blocked, Sterling was next in the queue to slot home. The second took just four minutes to arrive. De Bruyne surged to a loose ball, his cross evaded a despairing Raul Albiol and Gabriel Jesus's finish was simplicity personified.
De Bruyne then rattled a 25-yard left-foot shot off the underside of the bar. Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri was pacing his technical area in impotent rage, beseeching the skies with some Neapolitan invective, and turning to his assistants for moral support.
His team blew a lifeline in the 38th minute when Kyle Walker was rightly penalised for clambering all over Albiol in the penalty box. Dries Mertens stepped up and Ederson made a save that gave another reason for City's current primacy. The Brazilian makes contributions that were beyond the capability of Claudio Bravo last season.
That Napoli are a significant force to be reckoned with was revealed by their effort towards the end of the first half. Ederson's penalty save did not affect their momentum. There were some niggling fouls, one of which caused De Bruyne to be booked for dissent.
He left the field in visible anger at half-time; attempts by Silva and Fernandinho could not cool him down. Pep Guardiola had been similarly heated and the second half began with City looking to the pace of Sane, Sterling and Jesus on the break.
Opportunities were not coming as before, and Napoli were having the better of it. When Mertens beat Ederson to a loose backpass, Marek Hamsik had a gaping net to aim at, but still John Stones managed to deflect the ball away. Napoli claimed handball, but the ball had in fact bounced off Stones' hip.
Napoli's determination to get back in remained undiminished, and they did get a second penalty when Faouzi Ghoulam tricked Fernandinho into a foul. Amadou Diawara's spot-kick was hit with far more purchase than Mertens' and Napoli, finally, after 40 minutes of squaring up to City, were back in the game. It was a storm that City rode out, but the final whistle came with audible relief.
2. City brilliance does not sustain
Napoli were holding on for dear life in the first 30 minutes, looking like the latest victims of the attacking City brilliance that has notched 29 goals in just eight Premier League matches.
Sergio Aguero, rapidly recovered from broken ribs, and as against Stoke, remained on the bench. He might wait some time to start again.
Instead of the Argentine's guile in tandem with Jesus, Sane and Sterling bring raw pace in support of the Brazilian. Their moves inside took opposing defenders Elseid Hysaj and Ghoulam into deep confusion. The flexibility in positioning that Guardiola has brought to bear among his players leaves opponents in severe befuddlement.
Ghoulam did not have just Sterling to contend with on the right side of Napoli's defence. At various points he was tasked with trying to stop De Bruyne, Walker and even Fernandinho as they attacked his space.
During that opening half hour, Napoli's players will have known just how Stoke City felt when being beaten 7-2 on Saturday, but their doggedness would eventually reveal there are vulnerabilities to be picked at in Guardiola's team. This was a night to remind that City cannot blow everyone away; that early brilliance was simply unsustainable.
Guardiola, a manager who constantly bemoans his team not taking chances, will recognise this as an occasion where his team failed to put their opponent away by not converting dominance into enough goals to be comfortable with.
3. Napoli eventually show their mettle
Napoli have not been Italian champions since Diego Maradona inspired the club to the 1989-90 title, so domestic matters are an understandable priority for Serie A's leaders.
But even with the visit of Inter Milan to come after Saturday's 1-0 win at Roma, Sarri made just two changes, and those appeared tactical. Piotr Zielinski and Diawara in for Allan and Jorginho suggested that Napoli would play on the counter-attack and not their usual game of pressing on the front foot.
Sitting back against City has been a dangerous strategy for all-comers this season, and the policy survived just nine minutes before Sterling scored. Sarri retreated back to his seat in the dugout, notebook and pen in hand. Plotting a path to victory against City in such form had seemed beyond anybody at the moment, but his team came as close to finding it as anyone has this season.
Only Everton in the Premier League during August's 1-1 draw have frustrated City like Napoli did. For City's 10th win in succession, Napoli gave a team Sarri had called the best in Europe a real fright.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.