Real Madrid recorded their fifth victory from five matches played in Group C of the Champions League when they hosted Napoli at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.
The match ended 4-2, with Napoli taking the lead through Giovanni Simeone in the ninth minute, and Real responding within two minutes through Rodrygo Goes. Jude Bellingham put the Spanish giants ahead in 22nd, and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa leveled again less than two minutes after the break. Nico Paz made it 3-2 with six minutes of the 90 left on the clock, and Joselu set the final score deep in stoppage time.
It was a contest with plenty of twists and turns in terms of threatening the opposition goal, as well as the kind of football one would expect from the reigning Italian champions visiting the 14-time champions of Europe, a delight for neutral spectators.
Real mostly dominated the opening third, but they paid the price for a lack of focus in defending in the ninth minute when Khvicha Kvaratskhelia whipped the ball across the box for Giovanni Di Lorenzo to send back through the six yards, and Simeone escaped his markers to tap it in. Rodrygo’s equalizer was a top-class shot from outside the box, straight into the top corner. David Alaba showed his skill in passing as he noted Bellingham’s run and put it sublimely for the English midfielder to head over Alex Meret, and Anguissa made use of a bit of a real mess-up in the Real defence. Nico Paz, the 19-year-old who had come on from the bench to replace Brahim Diaz, hit a fine strike from range into the bottom corner, which, truth be told, Meret should’ve done better with, even if it did bounce awkwardly just in front the Napoli goalkeeper. Joselu made amends for a number of incredible misses with a fine finish in the last moments of the match, a goal created nicely by Bellingham.
Napoli did score twice and looked pretty dangerous on other occasions as well, but Real certainly deserved their win and the numbers back that up. The home side had the ball at their feet for 53% of the time, with Toni Kroos playing the leading role in that aspect, supported by Fede Valverde and Dani Ceballos. Carlo Ancelotti’s men also took a total of 20 shots, nine on target, while the visitors had 11, with just three going the right way.
Real players looked at referee Francois Letexier hoping for a penalty on two occasions. Interestingly enough, it was fullbacks Ferland Mendy and Dani Carvajal who found themselves in the opposition box believing they were fouled, but Letexier rightly waved both claims away and the officials in the VAR room saw no reason to interfere.
On the other hand, Real were arguably lucky that the VAR didn’t get involved when Antonio Rudiger injured Piotr Zielinski either, ending the game for the Napoli midfielder. The Germany international is known as a ruthless player, the kind Real have always had in the heart of defence, and he certainly showed that as he tackled Zielinski, got to the ball, and then kept his foot raised to put his studs into Zielinski’s thigh. It was utterly reckless, some would even say intentional, and it could’ve easily resulted in a red card.
On the other hand, it was hard be completely sure that Rudiger meant to do what he did, and that was probably the reason why Letexier wasn’t called to review the incident on the pitch-side monitor. It could hardly be construed as a “clear and obvious error”.
Do Real need a new No. 9?
Real didn’t sign a proper replacement for Karim Benzema when the French striker left for Saudi Arabia in the summer. They reportedly pursued Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe for a while, but when it became clear nothing would come of it this year, they settled for bringing Joselu in on loan from Espanyol. Ancelotti devised a different attacking approach, usually playing with two fast players upfront whose smart movement opens space for Bellingham to exploit.
The England international has certainly made the most of it, and the €100 million fee (likely to rise to the full amount of €130m) now seems like a small price to pay for such a player. He has already broken several records, scoring 15 goals and contributing four assists in 16 games in all competitions.
And while the setup looks like a tactical masterstroke by Ancelotti, praised widely for fully unleashing Bellingham’s vast talents, there are claims that Real still lack a proper centre-forward to play in front of the 20-year-old.
In all fairness, both sides of the debate have a point. Bellingham has been nothing short of sensational since his arrival to the Spanish capital, with many believing him to be one of the top candidates for next year’s Ballon d’Or award. That kind of quality certainly shouldn’t be limited by a coach’s tactical approach. Ancelotti frequently says so himself, albeit referring to all of his attack-minded players. The presence of an out-and-out striker would probably reduce the space between the attacking flanks which Bellingham is so good at running into.
However, there is another side of the story, of course. Ancelotti does like to use Joselu upfront sometimes, and though the 33-year-old has proven very useful on several occasions, his unbelievable misses in this game could’ve proven costly in this game. A proper top-class striker would probably have scored a hat-trick in his place, and when he did score in the end, he seemed to be apologizing for wasting previous opportunities rather than celebrating.
The decision, of course, belongs to Ancelotti to make, or in case he leaves the club as expected when his contract expires at the end of the season, whoever comes in to take his place in the Bernabeu dugout.
Napoli need better central defenders
The injuries to Napoli left-backs Mathias Olivera and Mario Rui left coach Walter Mazzarri with no option but to deploy centre-back Juan Jesus in the role. And while the 32-year-old did reasonably well, this was a very poor game from the two players in the heart of defence, Natan and Amir Rrahmani.
Natan in particular looked very shaky and indecisive, and Rrahmani was somehow always bypassed with ease by the Real attackers. Leo Ostigard was on the bench, and it makes one wonder if the 24-year-old Norway international would’ve been a better choice. Still, Mazzarri surely has his reasons. Possibly, Ostigard’s lack of match routine (he’s only played twice this season) made him unsuitable to start on such a big occasion as a trip to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Be that as it may, it was quite obvious that Napoli lack proper leadership in the heart of defence, a player like Kalidou Koulibaly was before his transfer to Chelsea in 2022. It probably wouldn’t hurt to sign a better goalkeeper either – Meret is also known to look shaky, and this game was no exception. As a matter of fact, since the start of October, Napoli have kept just two clean sheets in 10 matches in all competitions.
Topping the Group C table, Real have now secured that spot for the end of the stage with a maximum of 15 points, beating Napoli as the closest followers in the penultimate round. Though currently in second place, Napoli, with a tally of seven, still have work to do to make sure they stay there and join Real in the knockout stage.
However, it’s not very likely for Braga, the team that could yet turn things around, to cause such an upset. The two rivals meet directly at the Stadio Diego Maradona in the final round, and anything but a convincing Braga victory on that day will mean Napoli going through, and the Portuguese side continuing their adventure in the Europa League. That is, unless Union Berlin take advantage of Real’s comfort in the German capital.
Real may have secured the top spot, but for the remaining three teams, there’s still everything to play for.
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