Zinedine Zidane’s defending champions put in a superb performance to come back from a goal down to beat a tenacious Napoli side 3-1 in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16.
Three goals, three different names on the scoresheet and surprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t one of them despite putting in a good show. Zidane’s men came back from going a going a goal down early in the game thanks to a Insigne goal to with this tie with a resounding scoreline.
Benzema’s header, Toni Kroos’ second half strike from the edge of the box and a goal of the season contender from Casemiro were enough to put the hosts in a good position for their trip to Naples. He are some of the key talking points from the first leg of this Champions League round of 16 tie.
A Performance Of Champions
Sheer quality and experience was the deciding factor between the two sides. The defending Champions did not disappoint on their return to Europe’s biggest stage. Barring a loss of concentration in the 8th minute which led to a goal, Real never really looked as if they would lose this game.
They did not have any excuse either. Being champions doesn’t allow one to have the privilege of excuses, even when a player of Gareth Bale’s calibre is missing from the first team squad and Los Blancos certainly look like a side capable of defending their Crown.
The La Liga leaders didn’t let frustration get to them in the second half and a few minor tweaks were made by Zidane during half time after spotting some chinks in the visitors’ armor that allowed them to be exploited.
While they did manage to level the score going into the break thanks to Karim Benzema, 2 second half goals in the space of 6 minutes from Toni Kroos and Casemiro more or less ensured that they had one foot in the quarter-finals already.
Napoli’s Suboptimal Subs
Pepe, Nacho, Kovacic, Morata, Isco and Vazquez made up the outfield players on the Real Madrid bench before the start of the match, while the Napoli bench consisted of Giaccherini, Allan, Jorginho, Maggio, Maksimovic and the just returning Arkadiusz Milik.
It doesn’t take long to realise the obvious gulf in quality and depth between the two sides and that contributed to Napoli’s downfall. Not the bad performances of the substitutes, but Maurizio Sarri’s lack of quality options, or players who could turn things around after coming on.
After the visitors fell behind, Sarri brought on Allan and towards the end of the game, Milik. Neither of them could have a desired impact and it is likely that Sarri will go with a different lineup in the next leg in order to give himself more options later on in the game, particularly in midfield.
Ronaldo’s New Personal Record
Whilst he would be disappointed having not scored, the 32-year-old can take solace from the fact that he had reached a new individual milestone. His precise pass to set up Toni Kroos was his fifth assist in the competition this season, a personal best for him in a Real Madrid shirt.
The Portuguese captain is currently enduring a goal drought in the competition, having not scored since Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw against Borussia Dortmund back in September and the former Manchester United hit-man will be desperate to end this ‘dry spell’.
However, it was a typically superb performance on the night. He constantly created chance after chance for his teammates, got into good positions, drew defenders to him and took on the Napoli defence and kept making life difficult for him.
The Frenchman’s Champions League record this season speaks for itself. 5 goals in his last 4 games in the competition, including his side’s equalizer against the visitors further proves that he is still Zinedine Zidane’s best striker this season.
The 29-year-old is going through something of a dry spell this year, and has scored only 3 goals in 8 appearances this calendar year. Lacklustre displays over the course of the campaign have often led to some fans getting frustrated with the striker, with many calling for Morata to start more often.
However, Zidane has kept his faith in the Frenchman and he was duly repaid. Benzema’s goal last night was his 51st in the competition, and he surpassed Thierry Henry to become the 5th highest goalscorer in the competition’s history.
Benzema’s situation can best be described by the phrase, ‘form is temporary, class is permanent‘. His manager will know all too well the value of his compatriot’s experience as they look to be the first side to defend their Champions League crown.
Napoli Not Out
Despite the convincing manner of the scoreline, the Partenopei did put a very good performance. They took the game to the hosts in the early stages and were far from starstruck by the occassion. Though the scoreline makes it seem as if they were soundly beaten by the better side, it was far from the case.
They constantly made life difficult for the defending Champions and though their inexperience and missed chances largely attributed to their downfall, they didn’t lose their wits even after going 2 goals down and Real weren’t allowed any breathing space before the final whistle.
Maurizio Sarri’s men will take a lot of positives to take away from this tie and Zidane will be wary of the backlash awaiting them at the Stadio San Paolo. They have a valuable away goal and it would be foolish to rule out a 2-0 victory at home at Naples in front of their home fans.