We expected goals when Real Madrid hosted Napoli in the Champions League, and we got some doozies. We also got a great match that revealed quite a bit about both teams. Here are the six biggest takeaways from the first leg of their round of 16 clash.
Real Madrid wisely ended their brief midfield experiment
Against Osasuna over the weekend, Madrid looked lost in their 3-5-2 formation. Isco, Modric and Kroos started in midfield with Marcelo and Danilo playing wingback roles. On Wednesday, Zinedine Zidane opted to return to the familiar 4-3-3 with Kroos replacing Isco in midfield. The move paid dividends. Not only were Real Madrid markedly more organized than they were over the weekend, but, Kroos was the one to snap the 1-1 deadlock in the 49th minute. Welcome back to the lineup!
Karim Benzema deserves some respect
Benzema plays for one of the world’s biggest clubs, but he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the world’s greatest strikers. He probably should be. If he’s not exactly on that echelon, he still deserves more credit than he’s getting. He missed a few opportunities early in the match, but when a mouthwatering Dani Carvajal cross came in he didn’t fail to equalize in the 18th minute. That goal put him fifth all-time in Champions League with 51 career tallies. Not bad.
Dries Martens showed up late to the party
Coming into the match red hot, Mertens would have been expected to punish Real Madrid. He did, after all, boast 14 goals in his last 11 matches prior to this round of 16 tie. But he was kept largely at bay by Real Madrid. He posed a threat, sure, but the end product wasn’t there. His best chance to influence the match came midway through the second half but he just couldn’t get it done. That’s easier said than done against Pepe and Raphael Varane, sure, but he had his chances. They just went begging.
Casemiro can score, too!
Casemiro might be more well-known for his defensive contributions to Real Madrid’s cause, but he showcased a top-class shooter’s touch for Real’s third goal. It’s impossible to say if James Rodriguez meant to lay the ball off for Casemiro before the Brazilian uncorked his shot, but the end result is all the matters. The 24-year-old Brazilian drove his boot through for a rocket-powered volley that Pepe Reina was helpless to stop.
The heavy lifting doesn’t all fall to Ronaldo
As one of the world’s best players, Ronaldo’s been responsible for doing a lot of the work for Real Madrid in the past. That’s all well and good, and he can still single-handedly change am watch, but now he seems to have a little help. Or he’s more willing to be a facilitator. He has five assists in seven Champions League appearances this season, more than he’s ever had before for Real Madrid. He still loves to score, but now he’s spreading the wealth. That’s impressive.
Napoli aren’t completely toast
It’s going to be an uphill climb when Napoli host Real Madrid, but the 3-1 loss doesn’t leave them totally doomed. If they’re able to pull off a 2-0 win in the return leg on March 7, they’ll be through thanks to their away goal. They looked dangerous enough on the counter to secure that result, they just lacked the finish. Defensively is where Napoli will need to shore things up to even dream of advancing, though. It’s not all over for Napoli, but it’s certainly not looking great.