NAPLES, Italy — Not missing Gonzalo Higuain in the least, Napoli tightened its grip on Group B of the Champions League with a convincing 4-2 win over Benfica on Wednesday.
Captain Marek Hamsik opened the scoring with a header after 20 minutes, and Napoli opened the floodgates early in the second half with three goals — two of them from Dries Mertens — in the space of seven minutes.
Mertens scored his first with a beautiful free kick that floated over Benfica’s wall before dipping down into the net. Arkadiusz Milik, the 22-year-old Poland center forward brought in to replace Higuain, converted a penalty before Mertens added another from close range after goalkeeper Julio Cesar made a miscalculation.
Substitutes Goncalo Guedes and Eduardo Salvio scored late for Benfica.
“We showed that we can belong in this competition,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said. “Knocking out a top-level squad like this is not easy.”
Having opened with a come-from-behind 2-1 win at Dynamo Kiev, Napoli has six points from two games and looks improved despite Higuain’s Italian-record transfer to domestic rival Juventus for 90 million euros ($99 million).
Besiktas has two points after drawing 1-1 with Dynamo in the other group match, while Dynamo and Benfica have one each.
“We played a great match and we obtained a great result against a top-level squad,” Hamsik said. “Too bad we conceded those two goals at the end but it was still a great match.”
Napoli had never before scored four goals in the Champions League, and the outburst came a day after Juventus’ 4-0 win over Dinamo Zagreb.
Could this match be taken as a response to Juve’s performance?
“Napoli is here,” Hamsik said. “It was a big victory.”
After two seasons without Champions League action, Napoli’s San Paolo stadium was buzzing.
Perhaps the only hindrance to the match being a sellout were expensive ticket prices, with the cheapest seats selling for 40 euros ($45). In a protest against the high costs, a banner hanging from the Curva B where Napoli’s hard-core “ultra” fans sit proclaimed the area the “Settore popolare” — working class sector.
Napoli controlled the game right from the start, with Milik set up by a long pass from Faouzi Ghoulam only to produce a weak shot on goal less than 20 seconds after kickoff.
Benfica came close a few minutes later when Nelson Semedo rolled a cross into the area, before defender Elseid Hysaj was able to clear the danger.
Also early on, Napoli lost key center back Raul Albiol to an apparent muscle strain. The Spaniard was replaced by Nikola Maksimovic, who made his Napoli debut with the poise of a veteran.
A minute before Hamsik’s opener, Benfica defender Alex Grimaldo prevented a golden opportunity for the hosts with an acrobatic interception of a cross from Mertens that was heading directly for Jose Callejon in front of the goal.
Hamsik then beat his marker to meet a corner from Ghoulam and deliver a header inside the near post for his 101st goal in a Napoli shirt, placing him within 14 goals of Diego Maradona’s club record.
Benfica sorely missed injured striker Jonas, the Brazilian who scored 32 goals in 34 Portuguese league matches last season.
Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf