Written by Carl Walker
In mid December when the draw was made for the knockout stage of the Champions League, there was, to say the least, some mouthwatering ties. Real Madrid vs Napoli was certainly one of them.
Fast forward to last night and Napoli have played their part in making this game as mouthwatering as it sounds. Domestically Napoli have been fantastic this season and especially in recent weeks. Napoli are unbeaten domestically since 29th October and have lost fewer games than Juventus and Roma, and there recent 7-1 away win at Bologna has made everyone sit up and take notice of them. Maurizio Sarri has done a wonderful job this season in turning Napoli into serious contenders for Serie A once again.
They are the leading scorers in the league with 57 goals, and these goals are not all from one player, they are shared amongst a very exciting front line that can easily inter change position and break with unbelievable pace.
In the past the club has relied heavily on Higuain but after his sale to rivals Juventus in the summer, Sarri has given license to his forward line to play with more freedom. Mertens, Callejon, Hamsik and Insigne have scored 40 goals between them and also have 24 assists between them so far this season.
credit Nazionale Calcio
Defensively they also operate as a solid unit and have plenty of experience in the ranks. Pepe Reina is a seasoned pro and has tasted Champions League victory, Albiol and Koulibaly have formed a great partnership at the heart of the defence too. Sarri also has a young and hard working central pairing in midfield. Diawarra and Zielinski were both summer arrivals but the manager has shown faith in the youngsters.
Real Madrid lead the way in La Liga and Zidane has brought much needed balance to the squad that has been missing in recent seasons. Kroos and Modric are allowed to join in with attacks as Casemiro sits in front of the back four, breaking up play.
Up front Real Madrid, as always, have a plethora of quality and options. Cristaino Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez, Isco and Alvaro Morata supply the goals for Los Blancos. Madrid have substituted some of the style for results. Madrid have shown this season that they can grind out results.
The stage was set, The Bernabeu, Madrid. This was only the scond time Napoli have reached the knockout stages of the Champions League and they werent to fased by the occassion.
Napoli set up to frustrate the eleven time winners, Hamsik was deployed in a deeper role than normal to help combat Modric and Kroos in the centre of the park and then once the ball is won, counter as quickly as possible.
Pepe Reina was put to work in the first minute smartly saving Benzema’ shot but it was the visitors who took the lead shortly after, Hamsik played the ball through for Insigne who caught Navas out of position and deftly curled the ball beyond him and into the net. Napoli had the vital away goal.
Madrid were spurred on by the goal and continued to press and probe and attempt to break down the team from Naples and they was rewarded for thier persistance on eighteen minutes, Dani Carvajal crossed with the outside of his boot and Benzema had managed to pull off the shoulder of Albiol and rose to meet with his head, 1-1, Reina no chance. Benzema’s 51st Champions League goal.
That goal meant that Karim Benzema is now the highest scoring French footballer in the Champions League, moving one clear of Thierry Henry.
For the remaining twenty or so minutes it was all Madrid, as Napoli looked to contain the home team, and they rode thier luck with Real missing three good chances, one of which fell to Benzema who hit the post just before half time. Nevertheless the teams went in tied at 1-1 and Napoli’s gameplan was working.
Similar to game in Munich, Napoli were punished within the first ten minutes of the second half, Ronaldo set up kroos on the edge of the box who typically passed the ball past Reina to make it 2-1 to the host’s and shortly after Napoli were punished again. Madrid continued to pour forward and with Napoli still reeling from the second goal, Madrid smelt blood and went for the kill. The ball was flicked clear from Napoli and it fell to Casemiro who struck a sweet volley, that no one, including Reina could stop.
Napoli did have the chance to reduce the deficit with Mertens firing over and Madrid could of extended the lead further with Marcelo and James Rodriguez both wasting opportunities but all in all it was a comfortable night for Madrid who ran out 3-1 winners in the end.
The game itself was closer than the scoreline suggests, possesion was split right down the middle 50% each and Napoli only completed five fewer passes than Madrid, however Real were much more active in front of goal, working the opposition keeper much more that Napoli did. This will be a dissapointment for Sarri and something they must build on in the second leg.
Both teams were careful with possesion and out of the top five passers in the game, three were from Napoli (Diawara, Insigne, Hamsik) and the other two from Madrid (Kroos, Modric) From the top five it was Toni Kroos that had the best pass completion. He was fantastic. Controlled the tempo of the game, rarely wasted possesion and chipped in with a goal.
Napoli will certainly take heart from the first leg performance and the away goal can give them confidence going into the second leg at home. The Stadio San Paolo can be an intimidating atmosphere for anyone when full and Napoli could use this to thier advantage in the second leg.
This tie is certainly not over and with a real committed perfromance in that second leg the Napoli players could end up as hero’s and knock out the holders. Real Madrid were beaten 2-0 away in last seasons Champions League against Wolfsburg so it can be done. A repeat of that score line would see Napoli progress.
Dont write off Gli Azzurri just yet.
Will Napoli cause an upset in the return leg? Let us know your predictions!