LONDON: Lorenzo Insigne netted his 50th goal for Napoli as the in-demand forward helped his team book a place in the Champions League group stage on Tuesday, while Sevilla also went through and Celtic suffered a scare in Kazakhstan before winning their play-off tie.
Napoli was already leading through Jose Callejon’s goal away to Nice when Insigne struck from the edge of the penalty area in the 89th minute to complete a 2-0 win on the French Riviera and send his team through 4-0 on aggregate.
Whether Insigne is still at Napoli next month is unclear, with Barcelona among the leading clubs reported to be interested in signing him before the summer transfer window closes on Aug. 31.
“I’m proud to hear that top clubs are watching me, but doing well with the Napoli shirt is something I have always dreamt of,” Insigne said. “I think we improved a lot, especially in terms of mentality, hopefully we can also win trophies.
“Napoli must keep on playing in the Champions League every season, because this is where we belong. We are happy with the qualification.”
The 26-year-old Insigne is off the mark quickly this season after taking three months to find the net last year.
:Lorenzo is an absolute talent,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said. “At the moment he’s the player who best represents Italian football.”
There was a very different verdict on Nice’s Italian striker, Mario Balotelli, who was described as “highly inadequate” by coach Lucien Favre with Callejon scoring as Balotelli was arguing with match officials on the touchline.
Balotelli, who missed the first leg through injury, was sluggish, off the pace and never threatened the Napoli goal and the maverick Italian was eventually substituted during the second half to jeers from the home fans.
The low point of his evening came shortly after the start of the second half when Balotelli went over to the touchline and became embroiled in an argument with match officials.
The row appeared to centre around a white bandage on his wrist which French media said was covering up a bracelet — banned under the laws of the game.
While Balotelli was arguing, Marek Hamsik crossed from the left and Callejon, unmarked at the far post, scored easily.
Favre reacted furiously to the goal while Balotelli continued his discussion with officials.
“I don’t want to comment on Balotelli,” said Favre. “It wasn’t very satisfactory, it was not good enough.” Favre also complained that Balotelli was too slow in leaving the field when he was substituted.
Nice, for whom recent signing Wesley Sneijder started, were thoroughly outplayed over the two legs and will have to settle for a place in the group stage of the Europa League instead.
Napoli’s win ended a dismal run for Italy in the playoff round.
Serie A teams have lost at the same stage of the competition in the last three seasons, with Napoli themselves beaten by Athletic Bilbao in 2014/15, and it will be the first time since 2013/14 that Italy have had three teams in the group stage.
Sevilla, who won the Europa League three years in a row before losing to Leicester City in the last 16 of the Champions League last season, survived an almighty scare against Istanbul Basaksehir to go through.
The Spanish side, 2-1 winners in the first leg in Turkey, drew 2-2 at the Sanchez Pizjuan to advance 4-3 on aggregate.
They went behind on the night to an Eljero Elia goal but Sergio Escudero headed in a Jesus Navas cross early in the second half for the home side.
Great play from Nolito then set up Wissam Ben Yedder to seemingly end any doubt, but Edin Visca levelled the scores again on the night and an Emre Belozoglu free-kick struck the woodwork in the last minute as Sevilla came within a whisker of going out on away goals.
Former European champions Celtic went through 8-4 on aggregate despite losing 4-3 to Astana in the second leg of their play-off in Kazakhstan as a second-half wobble gave their hosts hope of pulling off a miraculous recovery.
Brendan Rodgers’ side had won 5-0 in the first leg in Glasgow and a super Scott Sinclair strike in the 34th minute should have killed the tie.
Astana, who had gone ahead on the night through a Kristoffer Ajer own goal, were given something to cling onto as a goal by Serikzhan Muzhikov and a Patrick Twumasi brace made it 4-1 on the night.
But Olivier Ntcham ended Astana’s hopes when his deflected strike made it 4-2 in the 80th before Leigh Griffiths reduced the deficit further in the final minute.
“I have mixed emotions because we didn’t defend well enough,” Rodgers told BT Sport. “The players were on the ropes for 15 or 20 minutes but then they regained composure.”
Only one side in action on Tuesday was eliminated after winning the first leg. Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s 2-1 advantage over Maribor was wiped out by the Slovenian side winning the second leg 1-0 at home with a Mitja Viler strike.
Maribor went through 2-2 on away goals to contest the group stage for a third time after previously qualifying in 1999 and 2014.
Greek champions Olympiakos are also back in the group stage following a 1-0 victory away to Croatian champions Rijeka that took them through 3-1 on aggregate. German international Marko Marin scored the only goal on the night.