Napoli v Real Madrid: Jonathan Wilson's tactical preview


Dries Mertens is a doubt with a calf strain sustained in Saturday’s 2-1 win away to Roma in which he scored twice. He has scored 18 goals in Serie A this season as well as three in the Champions League and his absence would be felt, but Napoli do at least have Arkadiusz Milik back following his knee ligament injury. For Real Madrid, Raphael Varane misses out with a hamstring strain. He hasn’t played since the defeat to Valencia and his absence has been a clear contributory factor in the loss of defensive solidity Madrid have suffered of late.



Napoli had gone into the game at the Bernabeu in great form, unbeaten in 18, but having lost 3-1 there in a remarkably open game, they have stuttered. They beat Chievo, but then lost at home to Atalanta in the league, before an away defeat to Juventus in the Coppa Italia. They got back on track on Saturday, though, by inflicting a first home defeat of the season on Roma, a 2-1 win carrying them to within two points of second. Madrid, meanwhile, are going through a mini-crisis, having already lost more games in 2017 than they did in the whole of 2016. A 4-1 away victory at Eibar at the weekend steadied the ship, but before that they’d gone two goals down in three games in a row. It’s testament to their resilience they came back to take four points from those three games.



This is only the second time Real Madrid have been drawn against Napoli. They played against each other in the first round of the European Cup in 1987, a game that was instrumental in the establishment of the Champions League as the powers that be sought to prevent two such vaunted sides from meeting at such an early stage.

Madrid won 2-0 at the Bernabeu, before a 1-1 draw in Naples. Three weeks ago, Napoli took the lead through Lorenzo Insigne but Madrid came back to win 3-1– that Madrid managed 19 shots to Napoli’s eight gives an indication of their dominance. Madrid, though, may be troubled by the nature of their lead. Eight times before they have gone into the second leg of a European tie with a 3-1 lead and only four times have they made it through. That said, the most recent of those failures came as long ago as 1992-93 when they lost 4-1 in the second leg of a Uefa Cup quarter-final to Paris St-Germain.



The problem for Napoli is that they can’t fully commit to attacking Madrid knowing how good they are on the counter. Luka Modric is a master at playing the pass at the right time, while the pace of Gareth Bale can be devastating. Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo perhaps don’t have quite the same explosive pace, but both are adept at attacking space in front of them.



Against the very best opponents, Ronaldo can be a vulnerability. He is a masterful forward but he is not diligent at tracking his full-back.

That’s why Alex Ferguson often played him at centre-forward for Manchester United in big European games, moving Wayne Rooney to the flank. Given how Marcelo’s attacking instincts and Toni Kroos’s lack of pace, that means there could be an opportunity for Napoli on their right if Jose Callejon can get behind the full-back or Piotr Zielinski can impose himself. There may come a point as well at which Elseid Hysaj, not the most naturally attacking full-back, has to leave Ronaldo, take a risk and commit to supporting his winger.



Perhaps the greatest encouragement for Napoli is that Madrid have kept just one clean sheet in their last seven games. Part of that is down to the absence of Varane, but there’s also a sense that the balance of the midfield makes them vulnerable and can lead to members of the back four being isolated. A gauge of how the game is going will probably be the battle between Modric and Marek Hamsik on the Napoli left. Both are fine creators who make a defensive contribution, key to the tempo of their respective sides.



A Napoli win is 2.75 but it’s telling they’re as long as 6.50 to go through. Given the attacking inclinations of both sides and the fact Napoli need to score twice it’s not surprising over-2.5 goals is as short as 1.50. Given the likelihood of a Madrid away goal, they may be happy enough to kill the game even if they’re one down which suggests that 2.75 on a home win probably represents decent value.