Casemiro stunner hands Real Madrid the edge against brave Napoli
It was fun and there is more to come. Ninety minutes, four goals, 27 shots, and an important, if not yet decisive, lead for Real Madrid to take to Italy: that was the balance from an enjoyable night at the Bernabéu where the first chance came after 20 seconds, the first goal after seven minutes, and the hosts came from behind to defeat Napoli 3-1. Next stop, San Paolo.
“We’ll try to win 2-0 but I don’t think Madrid would agree,” Maurizio Sarri, the Napoli manager, said. “San Paolo will be hell – and if we score first, even more so.” As for Zinedine Zidane, he said: “We’re going to suffer, for sure.”
Sarri had promised that his team would attack Madrid here, even if doing so was madness, insisting: “The only thing I won’t accept is a fearful performance.” He did not get one, and that felt like something to be grateful for but against an impressive Madrid team nor did he get the result he sought. His president was far from pleased. “We could change tactics once in a while; it could have been five,” Aurelio de Laurentiis complained.
“He can say what he likes, but I decide,” Sarri said, and he had decided to stay true to himself. Napoli had just gone 18 games unbeaten, after all. Then there was the small matter of their opponents. Sarri always knew defeat was likely against the team he called the “best in the world” before the game and who he said had produced their “best performance in three months” after it. “It could be,” Zidane said.
Madrid’s coach had been keen to avoid an away goal but by the end he was happy with what he had seen. His team showed ambition and personality in responding to falling behind and created chances to extend their lead as they racked up 20 shots – more than in any other game this season – and there was generous applause all around the ground at the final whistle. “It was a great performance,” Zidane said. “It was just a pity about that early goal.”
Madrid were behind after just seven minutes, yet they had had the first chance after 20 seconds, Pepe Reina reaching out his right hand to stop Karim Benzema’s shot from seven yards. The ball had arrived just behind Benzema and he had taken the shot on with his left foot, but the chance was a good one, made by Cristiano Ronaldo. Napoli were not cowed by that. When they went forward – and they were not shy to do so – they travelled with pace and intent, although Sarri later lamented their imprecision.
Five minutes in, this was already looking very open and very enjoyable. That sensation only grew – not least when Napoli took the lead in the eighth minute thanks to a spectacular strike. Marek Hamsik delivered the through ball, but Lorenzo Insigne decided not to let it run all the way, instead hitting it superbly first time from 40 yards. Usually shots from that distance go over the goalkeeper. This bent around a poorly positioned Keylor Navas and into the corner.
It was quite a start but it was only the start, and Madrid reacted. If they combined less – Amadou Diawara and Lorenzo Insigne completed more passes than anyone else, while Hamsik was only two behind Luka Modric – they made more, their momentum building. Benzema had three headers in six minutes, the third levelling the score on 19 minutes. Ronaldo provided the first cross, James Rodríguez the second and Dani Carvajal the third, curled wonderfully with the outside of his boot for Benzema to power past Reina.
The noise was deafening and Madrid were rolling forward. Ronaldo, just inside the area, thumped over from Modric’s lovely threaded pass. Then, just before half-time he escaped on the right and bent a neat ball to Benzema, running through the middle, only for Reina to get out quickly, narrow the angle and deflect the shot on to the post.
Madrid were not denied for long, Ronaldo constructing a goal for Toni Kroos on 49 minutes. Dribbling deep into the area from the right, reaching the byline alongside the six-yard box, Ronaldo stopped, looked and waited, eventually pulling the ball back for the German to guide the ball into the net.
Madrid wanted more, something a little more secure, and soon they got it. The pressure had been applied and the pressure paid off – the ball looping out to beyond the edge of the area where Casemiro sent a stunning diagonal volley dipping and flying 25 yards into the far corner.
Five minutes had passed between the two goals. A decent, if dangerous, lead had become a significant one but this was not over and Napoli would regret Dries Mertens’s miss, hitting high from close range, unmarked and central, after José Callejón’s cushioned setup.
With Napoli pushing and Madrid protecting as the game entered the last 10 minutes, the ball found Navas’s net for a second time – but the flag went up. The chance had been neatly made, Diawara’s delivery headed back across by Insigne for Callejón to nudge over the line. Napoli had been brave but they had been beaten by the European champions. If De Laurentiis did not enjoy it, everyone else did.
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