Champions League review: Napoli lets Real Madrid off the hook

Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, centre, scores his side's first goal during the Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between Napoli and Real Madrid at the San Paolo stadium in Naples, Italy, Tuesday March 7, 2017. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

• UEFA Champions League, Stadio San Paolo – Napoli 1 (Mertens 24’), Real Madrid 3 (Ramos 51’, 57’; Morata 90+1’)

GAME RECAP IN A SENTENCE

Napoli played Real Madrid off the park in the opening half, but the Italians couldn’t sustain it, and were eventually overwhelmed en route to bowing out of the competition, 6-2 on aggregate.

THE NARRATIVE

Real Madrid reminded us why they are the European champions on this night, surviving Napoli’s effective pressing game to emerge victorious and advance to the quarterfinals, when for a while they looked to be in serious danger of being eliminated.

The Italians ran rampant in the first half, dominating possession and dictating the pace, as they forced los blancos onto the back foot. It was all one-way traffic, thanks in large part to the efforts of Lorenzo Insigne, Marek Hamsik, Brazilian midfielder Allan and Amadou Diawara in the centre of the park. Dries Mertens’ sublime finish, off a great pass from Hamsik, was just reward for a Napoli side that completely dominated Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema looked completely isolated.

But for all Napoli’s attacking enterprise and efforts in containing the “BBC” trio, they didn’t take full advantage, and could only manage one goal, leaving the door open for the European champions to slither through. The Italians’ hard work was essentially undone by two corner kicks early in the second half, both of them delivered by Toni Kroos, that Sergio Ramos nodded home. Scored against the run of play, Ramos’ goals turned the tide in Real’s favour, deflating Napoli in the process. Alvaro Morata’s late goal simply added insult to injury.

KEY MOMENT

51’ GOAL! Napoli 1-1 Real Madrid: Real was chasing the game when a Hamsik giveaway led to a corner kick for the visitors. Kroos curled a dangerous ball to the near post, which Ramos managed to glance with his head, sending the ball flashing past Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina. It came against the run of play, swung the momentum in Real’s favour, and set the stage for Ramos’ second goal just six minutes later. It was game over at that point.

TALKING POINT

Was Real Madrid there for the taking? It certainly looked that way through the opening 45 minutes, as Napoli ran circles around Real Madrid, pinning them inside their half for long stretches. The hosts were magnificent, and certainly looked to have the visitors on the ropes after the restart. Cristiano Ronaldo hit the post in the first half, but aside from that, they never threatened—until Ramos’s first goal. You can’t help but wonder that had Napoli successfully defended that corner kick, would they have been able to get another goal and really turn the screw on Real? We’ll never know.

QUICK TAKE

Napoli’s Mertens is quietly putting together a sensational campaign for himself. The Belgian forward has emerged as one of the best players in Serie A this season, and he now has 17 goals in his last 16 games for Napoli in all competitions. His outstanding form has somewhat softened the blow of the off-season departure of Gonzalo Higuan to Juventus, and allowed Napoli to contend for a top-three spot in Serie A during the lengthy injury absence of Polish international Arkadiusz Milik.

STANDOUT STAT

MAN OF THE MATCH

Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid: The Spanish defender bagged a brace within six minutes, turning the game entirely on its head. At this point, we can call Ramos “Mr. Clutch,” as his last seven Champions League goals have come in knockout games, and 18 of his 21 goals in the competition since the 2014 final have come when Real were either losing or tied. Increasingly, when los blancos need a goal, it’s been Ramos to the rescue, as it was on this night at the San Paolo.

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