Luca Tonelli completed a dream debut for Napoli by hitting a last-gasp winner in a 2-1 defeat of ten-man Sampdoria on Saturday that closed the gap on leaders Juventus to four points.
Napoli looked to be heading for only a share of the points at the San Paolo stadium when Manolo Gabiadini came off the bench to hit a late leveller after Elseid Hysaj's own goal gave a dogged Samp a surprise 1-0 lead on the half hour.
But Tonelli, making his first start for Napoli since arriving from Empoli six months ago amid the absence of Algerian Faouzi Ghoulam at the Africa Cup of Nations, sparked wild celebrations in the fifth minute of added-on time when he fired Ivan Strinic's cutback from the left past keeper Christian Puggioni and into the roof of the net.
Napoli's 11th win of the season closed the gap on Juventus, who host Bologna on Sunday, to four points although the champions will also have a game in hand following their recent commitments in the Italian Super Cup final, which they lost to AC Milan in Doha.
"When I saw the ball come to me, all I thought was 'I have to score'," Tonelli told Sky Sport.
"I've had to work hard to get over some physical problems in recent months but I was ready. We showed tonight that we never give up. We came away with a deserved three points," Tonelli said.
Sampdoria president Massimo Ferrero, meanwhile, was furious with what he said was slack refereeing following the sending off of Matias Silvestre for a foul on 'keeper Pepe Reina on the hour.
"I want the referee (Marco) Di Bello to hold up his hands. And to get sanctioned by the federation. Silvestre's sending off was wrong, he didn't touch Reina," said Ferrero.
"And Napoli were offside at least eight times! Come on, we've had enough. And why, ask me, was there five minutes added on at the end?" said Ferrero.
Napoli dominated throughout a tactical but entertaining encounter but after a rooted Pepe Reina saw Ricky Alvarez's free kick shave post and crossbar, Patrick Schick got past his marker on the right to deliver a cross that came off the chest of Hysaj and into the Napoli net for Samp's opener.
Sampdoria striker Luis Muriel replaced Fabio Quagliarella shortly after the restart and was a constant thorn in the side of the Napoli defence.
The visitors, however, were stunned when Silvestre, who earned a caution earlier, saw red for obstructing Reina on the hour, although it took Napoli some time to capitalise on their advantage.
On 68 minutes Mertens spurned a great chance for the leveller when he hit wide from Callejon's delivery and the Belgian came close soon after with a header that crept wide.
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri introduced Gabbiadini for Jorginho with 19 minutes left and was rewarded soon after when the lanky striker tapped home Callejon's cut-back from close range after a Insigne's long ball over the defence.
It gave Napoli momentum, but it took the hosts until six minutes from time for their next real chance, Gabbiadini's angled strike from Insigne's smart nod-down finding the legs of Puggioni at the near post.
But the hosts kept up the pressure and were rewarded when Tonelli arrived just in time to meet Strinic's superb cutback with a confident strike.
Earlier a late penalty from veteran striker Massimo Maccarone condemned struggling Palermo to a 1-0 defeat at Empoli.
Palermo coach Eugenio Corini is the club's third this season having been appointed to help stave off the growing threat of relegation.
But three weeks after a dramatic 4-3 win at Genoa ended a run of nine consecutive defeats, the Sicilians sunk to a 13th defeat of the season that keeps them third from bottom and now seven points behind Empoli, who sit fourth from bottom.
Updated Date: Jan 08, 2017 12:45:22 IST