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Immediate Reaction: Real Madrid 3 - 1 Napoli

Real Madrid respond well to conceding an early goal and salvage a two-goal cushion

Real Madrid CF v SSC Napoli - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid win the first leg battle, 3-1. Here are some notes:

The Setup

Real Madrid rolled out their more traditional 4-3-3, which gave a sigh of relief to most fans. At this point, fans have begun to appreciate the little things in life — a non-gambling formation, a desire to dictate, and a desire to impose your will with the best squad on earth. Even James started, which was a welcome change of pace to packing the wings and relying on a back-heavy lineup to create.

Real Madrid got off to a blitzing start when Ronaldo’s low-driven cross from the left met Benzema’s left foot which was saved by Pepe Reina after 20 seconds. The team had a bounce, and everyone in attack looked to take the game to Napoli’s defenders. Yet, it all took a cruel turn when Insigne scored a brilliant shot from outside the box.

The conceded goal

Keylor Navas’ positioning will be the talking point, which may or may not be harsh — but it was the most obvious mistake, so the pitchforks will be out. If he stays on his line, he’ll risk Insigne coming at him like a raging bull in a one-on-one situation, but if he doesn’t hedge off his line so much, he’ll likely prevent that goal.

Now for the less obvious stuff — Napoli got out of Real Madrid’s press in midfield brilliantly. And I really mean brilliantly. Modric, Casemiro, and Kroos hounded the midfield without the ball so, so well — ditto for the attacking trio who helped make the entire scheme cohesive. They snuffed out space, but in turn, surrendered space in-behind the midfield, where the defensive line wasn’t in sync, leaving a massive void between them and the midfield.

That’s where the Insigne chance came from, and that’s where Napoli looked the most dangerous.

The turning point

Benzema’s goal. Karim was one of the top-three players on the pitch tonight. He cut off passing lanes, pressed like a madman, and created so much. Yes, he missed a couple chances (because, uh, Pepe Reina was doing stuff), but he also was a thorn in Napoli’s defense, as he should be. The goal was fun, because it was created by a vertical dagger from Toni Kroos, who, after seeing a string of horizontal jabs from Modric, Marcelo, Carvajal, and Casemiro, decided he had seen enough and found James on the right flank. The Colombian controlled it beautifully before cutting it back to Carvajal who slung in an impressive cross with the outside of his boot.

Real Madrid’s momentum snowballed from there. They dominated passes in the final third by half-time, and dominated the sheer number of clear-cut chances — so much so in fact that they may come to regret the chances they missed. But eventually that momentum paid off. Cristiano Ronaldo — who had a vintage game, creating chances, and burning defenders on the wings — undressed Koulibaly and cut it back to Toni Kroos, who finished the chance in traditional cyborg fashion.

Minutes later, this happened:

Real Madrid came at Napoli in waves, to put it in most basic terms. Obviously we’ll break it down more in our upcoming review, podcast, and weekly column; but what I liked most is how much more efficient the press became, giving Napoli less room to punish us with. Plays like this, were plentiful:

Of particular note, despite some shocking giveaways from Modric, James, and Casemiro — I really like how those aforementioned players cut off passing lanes all game and made interceptions. Kroos, Casemiro, and Modric combined for 17 interceptions tonight. Casemiro had 7 of those.

Not an awful result to take back to Naples.

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