Champions League - Advantage Athletic after draw in Naples

Champions League play-off first leg, Stadio San Paolo – Napoli 1 (Higuain 68) Athletic Bilbao 1 (Muniain 41)

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Champions League - Advantage Athletic after draw in Naples
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Napoli's Slovak forward Marek Hamsik (R) vies with Bilbao's Spanish defender Mikel Balenziaga (AFP)

Gonzalo Higuain’s second half equaliser left the Champions League playoff tie between Napoli and Athletic Bilbao well poised at 1-1 ahead of next week’s second leg.

Even at something less than full fitness, the Argentine netted a well-taken strike after 68 minutes in what was his first competitive game since the World Cup final.

It was a peculiar performance from Napoli, who were somewhat fortunate to be trailing by only one goal at the break following Iker Munian’s opener, with Athletic turning in a well-measured and composed away performance.

However, the decision to keep a struggling Higuain on the pitch, with Dries Mertens coming on as a second half substitute, paid off for Rafael Benitez, with Michu bizarrely passing up a golden opportunity to complete a comeback.

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Napoli's Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuain celebrates after scoring during the first leg of the UEFA Champions …

KEY EVENTS

29’ - OPPORTUNITY! He should have at least hit the target! What an opportunity for Bilbao. The corner kick is played into the box from the right side for Laporte, who is unmarked in the penalty area. But he manages to direct his header wide!

42’ - OPENER! Napoli 0-1 Athletic. What a huge goal! De Marcos makes a burst from right back before squaring the ball for Muniain, who picks his spot from 12 yards. Excellent goal.

46’ - HUGE CHANCE! What a chance for Athletic! Rico shoots on goal from the edge of the box, but Aduriz tries to deflect it goalwards on the first time turn but he puts it wide. He was onside as well! What a chance.

69’ - EQUALISER! Napoli 1-1 Athletic. Out of absolutely nothing Higuain has pulled his team level! He tiptoes his way through the box before hitting hard and low into the bottom corner!

71’ - MISS! What a chance! Callejon beats the offside trap down the right channel, but after faking the shot and making the keeper go down he puts his shot well wide. That was a sitter! Should have scored.

83’ - MICHU CHANCE! What was Michu doing! A cross from the byline falls at the feet of Michu eight yards out who has a fantastic chance to score. But incredibly he passes backwards. I can't believe he's done that, and neither can the San Paolo crowd!

87’ - MASSIVE SAVE! Incredible save! Mertens drops a shoulder and bursts into the box, squaring it back to Higuain. The striker powers a shot towards goal but Iraizoz sticks a hand up to make the stop!

TALKING POINT

Will Napoli pay for their lack of cutting edge? This was a strange game. Napoli struggled for most of the game, with Athletic on top for the best part of an hour. But Rafael Benitez’s side creating a number of chances in front of goal at either end of the 90 minutes and could conceivably have scored five or six despite playing poorly. Will they rue such wasteful finishing in the second leg?

MAN OF THE MATCH

Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao): The visitors clearly benefited from having a full summer to prepare for the new season, with not one single Athletic player called up to the World Cup. But nobody looked as sharp and as fit as Muniain, who was full of running all night and caused the Napoli defence all kinds of problems, taking his goal very well.

PLAYER RATINGS

Napoli: Cabral 5, Britos 5, Koulibaly 6, Albiol 5, Maggio 6, Jorginho 5, Gargano 5, Lorenzo 7, Hamsik 5, Callejon 6, Higuain 7. Subs: Mertens 7, Michu 5.

Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz 7, Balenziaga 7, Laporte 6, Gurpegi 6, De Marcos 7, Rico 6, Iturraspe 6, Muniain 8, Benat 5, Susaeta 6, Aduriz 6. Subs: Moran 5, Gomez 6, San Jose 6.

MATCH IN A TWEET

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