Rafael Benitez’s Napoli all but booked their place in the Europa League semifinals with a stunning 4-1 win over Wolfsburg in Germany on Thursday night. Gonzalo Higuain’s half-volley, two crisp finishes from Marek Hamsik and Manolo Gabbiadini’s header put the Italians on the verge of the last four. Nicklas Bendtner grabbed a late consolation for the hosts, but they looked a completely different side to the one which brushed aside Inter Milan in the last round. The Germans had already eliminated Inter in the last round and the Partenopei had never won a competitive game in Germany, managing just five draws from 10 attempts. Juan Camilo Zuniga missed out with no room on the bench for Duvan Zapata or Jonathan de Guzman. Naldo returned from suspension, but Aaron Hunt had a knee injury.Benitez has previously won the competition with Chelsea and Valencia and, with this season’s victors qualifying for the Champions League, may need to lift the trophy again if Napoli are to reach Europe’s leading club competition next season. Napoli, fourth in Serie A and seven points adrift of Champions League qualification, led when Argentina striker Higuain cushioned a long ball – with Wolfsburg claiming he used his hand – to prod in the opener. The German side are second behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and started the tie having lost just one home match all season – against Everton in November.
The Neapolitans took the lead in the 15th minute as Higuain netted his 25th goal of the season. He brought down an incisive crossfield diagonal ball from Dries Mertens and stabbed it past Diego Benaglio. Some controversy did surround the goal however, as the Argentine appeared to control the ball with his arm as he chested it. Within five minutes, the Partonopei took a vital 2-0 lead with another away goal. Higuain foxed the defence by dropping deeper and picking up the ball midway through the opposition half on the right, before whipping an early ball into the area which captain Hamsik pounced upon and fired home before wheeling away and roaring in celebration. Wolfsburg did have their chances however. Several crosses from the byline had to be cleared or clipped behind by Faouzi Ghoulam and Miguel Britos as Andr Schurrle and Kevin De Bruyne caused problems down the left, looking for the currently not so prolific Bas Dost in the centre. The home sidea s best opportunity came right on the stroke of half time, almost pulling one back through Schurrle. The former Chelsea man forced a fantastic save from Andujar after letting fly with a thunderous shot from just outside the area.
Higuain almost made it 3-0 straight after the restart, but Benaglio parried with one glove when he had sprinted away from Robin Knoche. Wolfsburg shot themselves in the foot by Joshua Guilavogui giving the ball away in the final third, so Jose Callejon rolled across for Hamsik to tap in from six yards. Lorenzo Insigne stung Benaglioa s gloves from distance, but Andujar performed a wonderful reaction save on Guilavogui. Manolo Gabbiadini came off the bench and found the net within four minutes for Napolia s fourth. Another substitute Insigne curled in the cross for his free header. Insigne almost got a fifth, just failing to get his head to the cross, but moments later Ivan Perisic pulled back from the by-line for Nicklas Bendtner to tap into an empty net. Gabbiadini let loose with his famous left foot and cracked his strike against the crossbar, as Napoli repeatedly threatened a fifth goal in Germany.
Four away goals and a three-goal cushion means Wolfsburg were left facing a Herculean task to try and turn the tie around in the second leg. This was their heaviest ever home loss in Europe. Barring a miracle Rafael Benitez will leave Napoli this summer, and until Thursday night he looked destined to do so as a failure. While he collected a Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana for the club, much more was expected. But their 4-1 demolition of Wolfsburg in the Europa League quarter-final first leg suggests there may yet be a defining moment for the cup king. Arguably Wolfsburg were the team to beat in this competition. A run of just one defeat in 23 matches had elevated them into second place in the Bundesliga and taken them past Lille, Sporting Lisbon and Inter on the continent. This emphatic win shows Benitez and his boys mean business. Benitez won two league titles and a Uefa Cup with Valencia, the Champions League, FA Cup and Uefa Super Cup with Liverpool. The Supercoppa and Club World Cup followed at Inter before his controversial short spell at Chelsea ended with Europa League glory. If Benitez knows one thing, it is how to win a cup competition. And after one of the best Europa League showings in many a year on the occasion of his 55th birthday, there is every reason to believe that his wonderful record is about to be bolstered.