MADRID — Three quick thoughts from Real Madrid’s 3-1 Champions League round-of-16 first-leg victory over Napoli at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.
1. Madrid midfielders take control of tie
Superb second-half strikes from Real Madrid midfielders Toni Kroos and Casemiro gave their side the victory over Napoli in Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 first leg at the Bernabeu, after a first half in which the visitors had scored early through Lorenzo Insigne but Los Blancos‘ Karim Benzema quickly equalised.
The expected tactical battle between Madrid’s former Galactico player Zinedine Zidane and Napoli’s self-made coach Maurizio Sarri never really materialised, as the La Liga giants’ superior quality and experience ensured that they dominated once overcoming an initial scare.
Madrid came out fast, as if looking to overpower and awe their less experienced opponents, but it was Napoli who took the lead through Insigne’s outstanding 35-yard strike on just seven minutes. Although that silenced the Madrid fans for a moment, Zidane’s team kept pushing players forward, and they were back on level terms within 10 minutes through Benzema’s powerful header.
From there on it was mostly one-way traffic through the first half.
Cristiano Ronaldo fired into the crowd behind the Napoli goal from 15 yards, Benzema hit the post and Raphael Varane fluffed a free header from a corner. Marek Hamsik hit the side netting on a rare Napoli counterattack, as the Serie A side were generally pinned back in their own half.
The second goal came soon after the break, with Ronaldo tricking Kalidou Koulibaly down the right wing and pulling back for Kroos to score one of his trademark “passes to the net” from the edge of the penalty box. It was soon 3-1 when Casemiro smashed a 25-yard volley across a helpless Pepe Reina and into the far corner.
Both strikes from the Madrid midfielders were technically superb, and another reminder of the pure footballing ability that runs through the Blancos‘ squad. Man for man, no other team in the competition has such quality and strength in depth, except maybe perhaps Bayern Munich.
Luka Modric almost joined the midfielders’ golazo party too, but his late 20-yarder flashed just over.
Even ahead of the second leg at the San Paolo on March 7, Madrid look all but sure to make the quarterfinals for the seventh successive year. And their sights are firmly set on becoming the first club to retain the trophy in the Champions League era.
2. Benzema answers critics
Centre-forward Benzema was the Madrid player with most to prove Wednesday, with Zidane faced with four different questions at Tuesday’s news conference from local reporters who prefer local lad Alvaro Morata up front.
Benzema had a chance to silence those questions inside 30 seconds, but his snapshot was well saved by Reina. When the Frenchman missed another chance soon after Insigne’s shock goal, the home crowd was not happy, and the familiar whistles started to ring out around the Bernabeu.
There were cheers soon afterward, though, when Benzema rose to head in Dani Carvajal’s excellent curving cross for the equaliser. It was his first goal in any competition since Jan. 12, ending a run of six matches without scoring. It was also his 51st in just 89 games in the Champions League, moving him ahead of his compatriot Thierry Henry to become their country’s top all-time scorer in the competition.
Benzema might have had another, but the impressive Reina diverted his shot onto the post after an excellent cross from Ronaldo. He had a quieter second half as Madrid rested in their 3-1 lead, but there was warm applause for the ex-Lyon player when he was substituted for Morata with time almost up.
3. Napoli’s kids give it a go but …
Around the time Zidane was scoring the winning goal in the 2002 Champions League final, Napoli coach Sarri was still working in a bank and coaching an amateur side in the Tuscan regional divisions. His rise from obscurity has been based around a positive, attacking philosophy, and the former economist stuck to that idea by naming exciting but inexperienced youngsters Piotr Zielinski and Amadou Diawara in midfield Wednesday.
Such a willingness to take a risk and try the unexpected paid off on just seven minutes. There did not seem much danger when Hamsik fed Insigne 35 yards out, but the little winger immediately struck a low curling shot that surprised Keylor Navas to find the net and stun the Bernabeu. Navas seemed to be badly positioned and to misjudge the flight of ball, but that should take nothing away from the sheer audacity of the goal — which the watching Diego Maradona would have been proud of.
Even when Madrid took control of the proceedings after Benzema’s equaliser, the visiting team still looked confident, making mistakes at times but continuing to try things. Teenager Diawara took too many touches at times on the ball in deep areas, but in others he beat the press and got moves going. To their credit the visitors kept going even at 1-3 down, but the previously in-form Dries Mertens lashed an 8-yard shot way too high, and ex-Madrid winger Jose Callejon finished a neat team move but was ruled offside.
A second away goal might have given Napoli more hope ahead of the return leg, but realistically they were outclassed and veteran goalkeeper Reina was their most impressive player on the night.
Sarri’s swashbuckling side came to the Bernabeu unbeaten in 18 games, but Madrid brought that run to a shuddering halt.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan and this article was first published by ESPN