Napoli’s forward from Poland Arkadliusz Milik (L) scores during the Italian Serie A football match Sassuolo versus Napoli, on April 23, 2017 at Reggio Emilia’s “Mapei” communal stadium. PHOTO: ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP
Arkadiusz Milik came off the bench to save Napoli’s blushes with a late leveller in a 2-2 draw at Sassuolo on Sunday.
Maurizio Sarri’s men travelled to Reggio Emilia trailing second-placed Roma by two points in the battle for automatic entry to next season’s Champions League.
But having failed to find the net in a messy first half, Napoli hit the woodwork twice on their way to an eighth draw of the campaign that leaves them third, nine points behind leaders Juventus and one off Roma.
Juventus, bidding for a record sixth consecutive scudetto, host Genoa later on Sunday while Roma are at Pescara on Monday.
Belgium midfielder Dries Mertens, who has played as a striker during Milik’s injury absence, broke the deadlock seven minutes after the restart with a rare header that gave him his 22nd league goal of the season.
Sassuolo pulled level seven minutes later largely thanks to Napoli captain Marek Hamsik. His mistimed header back to goalkeeper Pepe Reina was intercepted by Domenico Berardi, who scored in the 59th minute.
Napoli should have pulled in front again on 65 minutes but a Mertens free kick rattled off Andrea Consigli’s crossbar.
Minutes later, Consigli was quick to collect the ball after Lorenzo Insigne’s curler bounced off the inside of the far post.
After those reprieves, Sassuolo poured forward sensing an upset and were almost rewarded 10 minutes from the end when Reina could only parry Paolo Cannavaro’s flick-on from a free-kick on the right.
But moments later, second-half substitute Luca Mazzitelli pounced on Berardi’s overhead kick to beat the Spanish keeper down low with his maiden Serie A goal.
It prompted Sarri to replace Brazilian midfielder Jorginho with Milik, who with practically his first touch of the ball had Napoli back on level terms when he controlled Kalidou Koulibaly’s nod-down at a corner to sweep past Consigli.
It was the Pole’s fifth league goal of the campaign and first since September having been sidelined for the best part of six months after rupturing his anterior cruciate knee ligament in October.
Napoli regained the momentum but Mertens’s drive curled over and Pol Lirola blocked a late Insigne effort.
Napoli left the Mapei Stadium amid angry protests after their last-gasp penalty claims were waved away despite a Mertens flick appearing to come off Cannavaro’s arm.