Rafael Benitez worked his European magic again on Thursday as a rampant SSC Napoli produced a superb display to beat VfL Wolfsburg 4-1 in Germany in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League quarter-final.
Captain Marek Hamsik scored twice in between strikes by Gonzalo Higuain and Manolo Gabbiadini for the visitors at the Volkswagen Arena, and while Nicklas Bendtner got one back late on, next week’s second leg now looks set to be a formality.
Benitez has come under increasing pressure for Napoli’s faltering domestic form, with a run of just two wins in eight matches in Serie A seeing them slip seven points adrift of third place and the last UEFA Champions League qualifying spot.
That means winning the Europa League — which now brings with it a berth in the next season’s Champions League — now looks the easiest route into the continent’s leading club competition for Napoli.
Benitez, who has won the Champions League, UEFA Cup and Europa League in an impressive managerial career, marked his 55th birthday on Thursday by seeing his side win in some style.
There was more than a shade of fortune about the opening goal in the 15th minute, as Higuain clearly controlled a long Dries Mertens ball with his hand, before finishing past Diego Benaglio.
The 1988-1989 UEFA Cup winners ripped the home defense open again to double their lead midway through the first half, Higuain turning provider this time with a great pass for the unmarked Hamsik to score.
Wolfsburg, flying high in second place in the Bundesliga, were stunned, but only a great Mariano Andujar save from Andre Schuerrle prevented them from pulling one back.
Napoli then increased their lead in the 64th minute when Jose Callejon pounced on a slack pass by Josuha Guilavogui, before cutting the ball back for Hamsik to finish.
Substitute Gabbiadini then completed the rout when he headed home from a Lorenzo Insigne cross, although Wolfsburg got one back as former Arsenal striker Bendtner tapped in an assist by Ivan Perisic.
Gabbiadini crashed a superb shot off the bar late on, but Napoli look to have got the job done.
Meanwhile, current trophy holders Sevilla had two substitutes to thank as they came from behind to beat Zenit Saint Petersburg 2-1 at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
The visitors, coached by Andre Villas-Boas, took the lead in the 29th minute when Aleksandr Ryazantsev rammed the rebound into the roof of the net after his initial shot was blocked by goalkeeper Sergio Rico.
Sevilla had gone 33 games at home without losing, but that run was under serious threat until they produced an equalizer in the 73rd minute.
Aleix Vidal held up a cross from the right and Carlos Bacca, who had come on for Kevin Gameiro a short while before, headed home from close range.
Sevilla then claimed a precious lead to take to Russia for the return leg as Barcelona loanee Denis Suarez, also on as a substitute, volleyed past Yuri Lodygin two minutes from time.
“I hadn’t played for a while and I was desperate to take my opportunity, which I did,” Suarez told Spanish TV channel Cuatro.
Elsewhere, Bacca’s old side Club Brugge KV remain the only team yet to lose in this season’s Europa League after a 0-0 draw at home to Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk of Ukraine.
Ukrainian league leaders Dynamo Kiev, conquerors of Everton in the last round, had to settle for a 1-1 draw at home to ACF Fiorentina.
Dutchman Jeremain Lens gave the home side the lead in the first half, but Senegalese striker Khouma Boubacar produced an acrobatic finish in stoppage-time to give La Viola a precious away goal and a draw to take back to Italy for the return leg next week.
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