Thursday, April 25, 2024

Napoli 2-3 Real Madrid: Talking points as Los Blancos show winning mentality again

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Real Madrid have now strung two victories together from their opening two games of the Champions League campaign, this time at the expense of Napoli.

The Serie A champions took the lead in the 19th minute through a powerful header by Leo Ostigard, but a horrible mistake by captain Giovani Di Lorenzo eight minutes later enabled Jude Bellingham to steal the ball and set Vinicius Junior up for the equalizer. Real turned the game around completely when Bellingham took matters into his own hands and danced through the Napoli defence in the 34th and the break found them ahead of the opposition. In the 54th minute, Piotr Zielinski converted from the spot to set the score back level, but a 78th-minute thunderbolt by Fede Valverde, deflected twice, hit the crossbar and bounced into the net off goalkeeper Alex Meret, putting all three points on Real’s tally.

A dynamic, close game

Real left the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona victorious, but Napoli probably didn’t deserve to lose either, and despite the sour taste for Rudi Garcia and his side at the final whistle, the home supporters showed their appreciation for the effort they put in with a strong applause.

Facing the 14-time European champions, Napoli didn’t shy away from the challenge and sought to dominate the proceedings, ending the contest with 51% of possession. The two teams took 18 shots apiece, Napoli finding the target seven times, Real five. Napoli attempted a total of 506 passes and completed 90%, while Real players did it 515 times with an 89% accuracy. Whichever way the numbers are viewed, this was a very close contest between two high-quality sides, a proper Champions League game.

Many have said that Real would feel the consequences of not signing a proper replacement for Karim Benzema this summer, and that eventually may prove true through the course of the season, but for the time being, head coach Carlo Ancelotti has devised a great way to use the apparent “hole” in his team to get the best out of Bellingham. The English midfielder is obviously thriving in the role, frequently charging into the space in the middle of the attacking line, created by the ability of Vinicius and Rodrygo to stretch opposition defences thin.

On the other hand, Napoli do have a proper No. 9 in their ranks, and both Antonio Rudiger and Nacho had their hands full in dealing with Victor Osimhen. However, the link between the Nigerian striker and Kvaratskhelia on the left wing doesn’t seem to be working quite as well as it did last season, and it’s down to Garcia to sound out the reasons behind it.

Mistakes at the back

A mistake preceded each of the first two goals in this match. Before Ostigard headed home to break the deadlock, Real goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga misjudged the flight of the ball from Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s corner, losing the race for it to Natan, and as the Brazilian headed onto the bar, his centre-back partner rose highest to put the rebound in the net.

As for Real’s equalizer, one wouldn’t expect a player of such experience as Di Lorenzo to attempt such a dangerous horizontal pass, giving Bellingham every opportunity to intercept at around 20 yards for Meret’s goal.

Di Lorenzo’s mistake will surely be forgiven and forgotten in Naples soon. He is, after all, the captain of the team and has been wearing the Napoli shirt for four years now, with close to 200 matches in their shirt, an integral part of the team that won the Scudetto last season.

Kepa, on the other hand, has been brought to Real to stand in for the injured Thibaut Courtois after a troublesome spell at Chelsea, and his performances are being monitored closely before any decision on his future is made in the Spanish capital. The 29-year-old Spaniard will do well not to let this kind of thing happen too often.

The penalty decision

The penalty decision which resulted in Napoli’s second-half equalizer caused some debate. Real defender Nacho slid in to block a close-range shot from Osimhen, and the ball bounced off his foot and hit his hand.

Either side of the argument has its own base. The ball did hit Nacho’s hand, and it can’t exactly be said to have been in a natural position. On the other hand, it was a reflex reaction from the Real defender and it arguably protected his face, and there can be no talk about him being able to control the situation.

Be that as it may, referee Clement Turpin from France took a look at the pitch-side monitor at a request from the VAR room, and gave the penalty.

All in all, Real Madrid probably shouldn’t be too angry with the officials, nor should Napoli had the call gone the other way. It’s a grey area in the laws of the game, and it depends on interpreting the reasons of Nacho’s arm movement. Turpin obviously judged it was to make himself bigger, and the effect was exactly that. Neither call would’ve been definitely wrong.

Given what happened in the Premier League on Saturday, when Liverpool were denied a clear goal against Tottenham Hotspur through an obviously wrong offside call despite the presence of VAR, the levels of officiating in the English top flight have rightly come under fire, but the standards are notably higher in the Champions League, and there is no call to question Turpin’s performance, or that of the VAR, in this match.

The group

The other match in Group C, played between Union Berlin and Braga in the German capital, ended with the same scoreline, with the Portuguese side taking all the points. That means that Real now lead the pack with six, followed by Napoli and Braga with three apiece and exactly the same number of goals scored and conceded, and Union sitting at the bottom, still on zero.

Round three is up on October 24th, when Braga host Real and Napoli travel to Berlin, and a win in Portugal would put the Spanish giants within sights of qualification to the knockout stage, especially if Napoli do not win in Germany.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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