Real Madrid’s 1-3 victory (Mertens; Ramos x2, Morata) sees them advance the Champions League quarter-finals. Here are some quick notes.
Earlier today in Naples, Napoli fans put up signs that tonight’s game was actually Real Madrid’s funeral — one and the same. Upon kick-off, the stadium was raucous, Sarri’s press was stifling, and Real Madrid were getting suffocated trying to escape their own half where they were hounded by blue shirts. Eventually, they conceded. Hamsik — who was ignored and left alone in dangerous positions three times in the first half — had enough time to slice the defense and find the in-form Mertens. At that moment, the symbolical funeral almost seemed too real.
In turns out it was a funeral after all, but it wasn’t Real Madrid’s. After Sergio Ramos scored in unicorn fashion (and then scored in unicorn fashion again) in the second half, the deafening noise of San Paolo turned into melodious chants of ‘Viva Espana’; and ‘ole’s’ with each pass that Real Madrid slung around.
hello do u have a moment to talk about our lord and saviour sergio ramos pic.twitter.com/EGz6hUfkq9— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) March 7, 2017
THIS MAN IS NOT REAL. HE CAN'T BE. pic.twitter.com/d3vHQGBoCs— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) March 7, 2017
Let’s be clear — Sergio Ramos and his divine assistance masked a very dangerous situation. Real Madrid escaped. In the first half, Napoli pressed Real Madrid as good as I’ve seen anyone press Real Madrid this season. Marcelo — normally king eel in precariously tight spaces — was struggling to find any outlets. Ditto for the entire backline and midfield trio. The front three, although good individually in attack on rare moments where Real Madrid found space to get in-behind Napoli’s midfield, were isolated due to Napoli’s press that rendered them detached from the rest of Real Madrid’s offensive scheme.
The question when a team comes out this vigorous is always ‘how long can they sustain it?’. In Napoli’s case, just before Mertens’ goal, their press started to wane a bit. But, timely enough, the goal gave them 2nd-wind, and their press went back to being relentless.
In my half-time show on Facebook, the TLDW was: Casemiro was better than all the criticism he received (in a scheme that sat back, the passing lanes were surprisingly spread open, and Casemiro did better defending those channels than Modric and Kroos). Either way, if you play deep, you better be compact, and Real Madrid weren’t. On another day, Napoli may punish Zidane’s men more, but the good news is both Pepe and Sergio Ramos are big game players, and both were very good tonight to stop some of the bleeding defensively before Ramos stole the soul of every man, woman, and child in San Paolo with his two goals off of (excellently delivered from Toni Kroos) set-pieces; before Morata’s hunger on a rebound gave Real Madrid’s third goal and ultimate victory.
Real Madrid now march to the quarter-finals, and the season thankfully gets stretched. As always, the immediate reaction is just the bare bones. Still to come: Post-game podcast, full match review, and player ratings.