Real Madrid host Napoli in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match on Wednesday.
Los Blancos have been on a roll in La Liga this term, and despite playing two games less than Barcelona, they still find themselves sitting atop the standings – a point adrift of their league rivals.
However, they haven’t match that level in the Champions League. They appeared to struggle in both matches against Sporting Lisbon, and ended up sacrificing a glorious opportunity to top the group.
They will now take on Serie A side Napoli that topped Group B ahead of Benfica, Besiktas and Dynamo Kyiv. Sitting in a respectable third position on the domestic table, the Italian club could be backed to cause an upset against the defending champions.
A back three was experimented over the weekend, but Real boss Zinedine Zidane is likely to play a tried and trusted 4-3-3 formation for the match against Napoli. Keylor Navas will start in goal ahead of Kiko Casilla.
In defence, despite the availability of Pepe, Raphael Varane is likely to partner Sergio Ramos at the heart of defence, with Dani Carvajal and Marcelo on either sides of the pair. Zidane will be overjoyed to have his first-choice midfield trio of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric available, and is likely to start with them.
Given the absence of Gareth Bale, Lucas Vazquez will start on the right side of the attacking three with Karim Benzema playing centrally and Cristiano Ronaldo on the opposite flank.
For Napoli, former Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina will start between the sticks with a centre-back pairing of Raul Albiol and Kalidou Koulibaly in front of him. Jorginho will be the engine in the middle of the park, backed by the support of Piotr Zielinski and Marek Hamsik.
Despite not being at his best this season, Lorenzo Insigne will start on the left wing, with former Madrid youngster Jose Callejon on the right. Dries Mertens will lead the line and could also drop deeper, allowing the wide men to cut inside.
- In their only previous encounter, Real Madrid knocked out Napoli in the first round of the 1987/88 European Cup, winning 2-0 at home before a 1-1 draw in Italy.
- However, Real Madrid have been eliminated in seven of their last eight home/away ties with Italian sides in the European Cup/Champions League, the only exception coming against Roma in last season’s round of 16.
- This is the 20th consecutive season in which Real Madrid have made it to the Champions League knockout stages, a record in the competition – they have reached the semis in each of the last six seasons.
- Napoli topped their Champions League group for the first time, after finishing second (2011/12) and third (2013/14). However, they’ve never gone further than the round of 16.
- Since 2010/11, Real Madrid have won 33 of their 39 Champions League games at Santiago Bernabeu (D4 L2). Their two defeats during that time have come against Barcelona in April 2011 and Schalke in March 2015.
- Real Madrid have also never failed to score in their last 33 Champions League home games, longest ever run in the competition. Barcelona were the last team to leave the Bernabeu with a clean sheet (2-0 in April 2011).
- Napoli, meanwhile, have only kept one clean sheet in 10 Champions League away games, it was on their only visit to Spain, against Villarreal in December 2011 (2-0).
Watch out for
Who else, but him? Cristiano Ronaldo has carried the Real side on his shoulders for a number of seasons and this could be his last realistic shot at winning the Champions League. The Portuguese superstar had not trained with the team all week, but joined them on Monday, and is likely to feature in a must-win home game. With his strike talisman Gareth Bale out through a long injury lay-off, the onus will be on Ronaldo to squeeze his way through a tight Neopolitan defence.
Real Madrid 2-1 Napoli
Defensively, Real been far from their effective self this season, and a pacey Napoli attack is certainly not going to give Los Blancos’ defenders any respite. Both teams are solid going forward, but can be left exposed at the back, giving the front men a field day. It is likely that both teams will find the back of the net, but the hosts are expected to edge out their Italian opponents purely on the class of the players they have at their disposal. However, a crucial away goal will be taken no questions asked, by Napoli, leaving the fans intrigued for their return fixture on the 8th of March.