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Napoli vs Real Madrid: Q&A with the Enemy

The Siren’s Song chats with Managing Madrid

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

Real Madrid are in Naples today (clearly) to defend a two-goal lead in the first knock-out phase of the Champions League. In the first leg, Zidane’s men put in what is widely accepted as the best (or at least most important) performance of the season up until now. Every player played his part — the team was in-sync and in form.

It goes without saying, today’s game in Italy won’t be easy, and probably more difficult than the first leg given that: A) Real Madrid suffers in Italy historically; and B) Napoli’s execution and passing on the counter will probably improve (while they had moments of sheer brilliance getting out of a press and creating chances in the first half of the first leg, they struggled to hit their target over the course of 90 minutes, and Real Madrid had 19 interceptions).

To be sure, there are reasons why today’s second leg fixture, as tough as it may be, will go Real Madrid’s way. For one, there hasn’t been a single game this season where Real Madrid have failed to score a goal, and, as we all know, one (or two, or three) away goals will put a nail(s) into Sarri’s heart, upping the ante and making life terribly difficult for Napoli. There is also the fact that Carvajal, Kroos, and Marcelo have been rested at the weekend; as well as the fact that Ronaldo, Benzema, and James are in really good form.

The lineup picks itself. Zidane’s XI in do-or-die matches when everyone is healthy is clear — and besides, it worked well in the first leg. The only question mark is Bale. Even in the less-than-likely event Bale can’t start or play the full 90, the very much in-form James can naturally slide in — though it’s true Zidane might prefer the work that Lucas Vazquez does on the flanks for this particular situation too. Something to look out for: if the Copa del Rey second leg vs Sevilla is anything to go by, Zidane will push high to look for away goals, even with a cushion to work with and lead to defend.

To provide some extra insight for today’s clash, I reached out to Conor Dowley (@c_dowley) of SB Nation’s The Siren’s Song. Q&A below.

Kiyan: It's do-or-tie on Tuesday, Conor. How confident are you after how the 1st leg unfolded?

Conor: Not very, especially with how shaky Napoli's form has been since then. If they had managed to keep it at 2-1 I'd feel a lot better about things, but chasing a two-goal deficit against Real Madrid in the Champions League, with just one away goal in hand... that's going to be very, very, very difficult.

Kiyan: The 1st leg of the Coppa Italia last week against Juve unfolded very similarly to the one against Real Madrid in the Champions League (nice performance in the first half, one goal lead, and then collapse before conceding 3 goals). You then went to Rome and had a big win. What is the momentum like now going into the 2nd leg?

Conor:The performance against Juventus was much better than the scoreline, with two of their goals coming off penalties that were, at best, controversial. Napoli actually outplayed Juve in Turin for much of the match, and then went to Rome and easily beat Roma. So that part of the momentum is good -- very good, even. But their loss to Atalanta a week ago and the frustrations of the end result over Juventus raised a lot of red flags, including some off the pitch. Hopefully there are no distractions that will take away from Napoli's improving momentum.

Kiyan: Please tell us more about Merten's dog / piss celebration.

He was expressing his dominance over Roma and marked his territory appropriately. What more is there to say besides it was glorious?

Kiyan: What is the key to Napoli overturning this result on Tuesday, and do you think (or will) Sarri change his approach?

Conor: There's certainly adjustments I'd recommend making to Napoli's approach on Tuesday, but I don't expect Sarri to change his approach much, if at all, given his history of single-mindedness. The key, then, is to use the San Paolo and the energy of the crowd to their fullest extent to try to keep Real Madrid off-balance long enough to establish themselves as the dominant side in the match. Two first-half goals without giving up a reply would go a very, very long ways to that.

Kiyan: How have the ADL comments affected the team?

Conor: It's hard to tell. Honestly there are times that I think the team barely pays attention to what ADL says in the media, and I think this could be an example of that. Sarri, however, occasionally seems to make decisions to spite him, which seems... unhealthy for his job security.

Kiyan: How are our boys Callejon and Albiol doing? It seems like a lot of people in Italy were surprised to hear that Callejon's recent call-up to the National Team was not a regular occurrence -- mostly because he's been so good in Italy -- and people in Spain largely don't know how he's doing.

Conor: Albiol seems to be nearing the end of his time as a top player, but he's done a lot of great work for Napoli over the last few years. He can be frustratingly inconsistent at times and makes about one bad mistake a game, but the rest of the time he's a rock.

Callejon, though, has been a blessing for Napoli. When he's in his top form he is a tremendously lethal goalscorer, and while his scoring touch can be incredibly streaky he still gives the team a lot on the pitch when he's not banging in goals. He's steadily and significantly improved as a defensive presence on the wing in his time at Napoli, and with his sky-high work rate he's almost always available as an outlet out wide when his team needs one. That's worth a lot, and it's a shame that the Spanish national team hadn't recognized it before.

Kiyan: Prediction.

Conor: As much as I would like to be a sunshiny optimist and say that Napoli can win -- I just don't see it. I predict a 2-2 draw, which gives us a 5-3 aggregate result.

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