Napoli were made to pay for their complacency as Empoli ran out as deserved 2-0 victors on Wednesday night at the Cario Castellani. With the Naples side's spot in second place in Serie A more or less cemented, it looked as though the away side lacked the drive and desire to win this game.
After a quiet first 25 minutes, Empoli got a slice of luck when Dhiego Farias opened the scoring. His shot deflected off Piotr Zielinski and past the wrong-footed Napoli keeper, who could only watch on as the ball flew into the net.
The home side had a glorious opportunity to double their lead as Farias' lovely low cross found Francesco Caputo free in the box, but his effort was straight at Alex Meret who spread himself well. Despite failing to capitalise on this chance, Empoli looked fairly comfortable as Napoli struggled to find gaps in their well organised back line.
It was going to take something special to equalise and Zielinski provided exactly that on the stroke of half time. His bullet shot from 25 yards out flew past Ivan Provedel in the Empoli goal, who could not react quickly enough to the Pole's powerful strike.
Napoli may have been expecting to build on this in the second half, but it was Empoli who came racing out of the blocks. The Tuscan side first went close through Pajac's fierce shot, which was tipped round the post by Meret, but then managed to regain the lead when Di Lorenzo found space at a corner to head in at the near post.
Ancelotti's men finally began to push on as the game passed the hour mark when Dries Mertens was introduced to the action.
They then went close through Zielinski's fizzed half volley and then through Milik who could only fire his shot straight at Provedel when he had a sight of goal in the box. But despite increased pressure from Napoli, it was Empoli who looked most dangerous as they threatened on the break on several occasions and eventually saw the game out to take home a welcome three points.
Starting XI - Provedel (6); Di Lorenzo (7), Maietta (6), Silvestre (7), Veseli (7), Pajac (6); Traore (6), Bennacer (6), Krunic (6); Caputo (6), Farias (7)
Substitutes - Brighi (7), Antonelli (N/A)
Key Talking Point
Tonight's result was never going to be pivotal in Napoli's season, as they sat in second place in Serie A coming into this match - 17 points off table-topping Juventus and 11 points clear of third placed Inter. Nevertheless, they will have been eager to build momentum as they head towards next Thursday's Europa League quarter-final tie against Arsenal, with the European competition representing Napoli's only real chance of silverware this season.
Perhaps Gli Azzuri were too comfortable however, as there seemed to be a lack of intensity and urgency in their performance. With the home team fighting for lives at the bottom of the table, Napoli's complacency was punished as the home team controlled much of the game.
A goal either side of Zielinski's wonderful effort earned Empoli their deserved victory and will go a long way to ensuring they play Serie A football next season. For Napoli, they will need to pick themselves up and dust themselves off quickly ahead of their next game as they look to avoid going into the game with Arsenal on a bad run of form.
Starting XI - Meret (7); Malcuit (6), Koulibaly (5), Luperto (6), Rui (6); Allan (5), Zielinski (7*), Callejon (6), Ounas (5), Younes (6); Milik (6)
Substitutes - Mertens (7), Peña (6), Verdi (6)
Star Man - Piotr Zielinski
In his 100th Serie A appearance for Napoli, Zielinski may not have been able to mark the milestone with a victory, but he did provide many of his team's brightest moments in the game. After a bad stroke of luck which saw the ball deflect off him to give Empoli the opening goal, Zielinski reacted brilliantly and grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck to get the away team back into it.
In their struggle to open up the opposition defence, Zielinski opted for the spectacular and he succeeded with his rifled shot from long range. Such was the power of the strike, the home goalkeeper barely had time to react before the ball flew past him and into the net.
Indeed, it was much of the same in the second half, as the away team could not get a lot out of a resolute Empoli defence and Zielinski inspired his side's best moments. His sweetly struck half-volley fizzed just past the post in what was the closest Napoli came to equalising for a second time in the game. Whilst Ancelotti will not be happy with his team's performance as a whole, he will at least be able to take encouragement from his Polish midfielder's display.
Empoli continue their fight to stay up on Saturday when they travel to Udinese as they face up in a relegation six-pointer. A win for either side, would see them stretch the gap between themselves and the bottom three and provide them with some much needed breathing space.
Up next for Napoli, they face mid-table Genoa at home on Sunday evening, but you could argue their focus may be more on the Arsenal game on the following Thursday. However, in a game where Ancelotti will have been hoping to rest a few key players, the Italian manager may need to have a rethink in order to avoid entering that game on the back of two defeats.