Napoli fans might find plenty to be discouraged about following Wednesdays’ 3-1 loss to Real Madrid, but there’s just as much reason for hope in the second leg.
Before Napoli even arrived in Madrid, Wednesday’s match was slated to be one of the most deceptively even contests in the Round of 16.
Real Madrid are Real Madrid, of course. They lead La Liga by a single point over Barcelona, but with two games in hand. With their rivals suffering a devastating defeat to Paris Saint Germain on Tuesday, Real now look the favorites to win their second consecutive Champions League trophy. Should they succeed, it would be their twelfth championship in Europe.
For their part, Napoli can’t quite make the same boasts. They currently sit third in Serie A, nine points behind league leaders Juventus. To date they have never made it last the Champions League Round of 16, having only made it that far twice before in their history.
It was nearly impossible to see that disparity in the first half on Wednesday however. Indeed, no 45 minutes of Champions League football have looked quite so thrilling or proved so evenly balanced thus far this season.
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Real came close in the opening minute, with Cristiano Ronaldo setting loose Karim Benzema who only narrowly missed a shot on Napoli’s goal. The visitors quickly recovered from that early close call. Real dominated possession but couldn’t bust down the visitor’s defensive ramparts.
Between Real attempts, Napoli recycled the ball forward confidently and reliably. Nineteen-year-old Amadou Diawara hardly looked overwhelmed by the likes of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos. Passes found Marek Hamšík with remarkable ease. Dries Martens, José Callejón and Lorenzo Insigne lingered on the edge of Real’s third, running down the ball at every opportunity.
Insigne — born and bred in Napoli — gave his side an early lead. Hamšík threaded a ball into Insigne’s stride thirty yards out from Kaylor Navas’ goal and the 25-year-old artfully curled the ball into the back of Real’s net.
Real’s pressure would pay off just ten minutes later thanks to a wonderful outside-of-the-boot cross from Daniel Carvajal that found Benzema on the far post. For the remainder of the half, however, Napoli kept Real quiet while creating chances of their own.
The momentum wouldn’t last long after the interval. Kroos latched onto a Ronaldo pass and gave the home side the lead in the 49th minute. A truly spectacular goal from Casemiro five minutes later settled the contest in Real’s favor.
Even after Casemiro’s wonderstrike it wasn’t entirely clear Real would pull out of this intact however. Napoli continued to harass Real’s midfield and find ways forward. Martens skied a clear-cut chance that could have given the visitors two invaluable away goals to take back with them to Naples.
Insigne’s first half strike might be enough though. Napoli, as it turns out, are very familiar with just this kind of situation.
The last time Napoli made it into the Champions League Round of 16 was in the 2011/12 season. They were to face a Chelsea side that looked in disarray, an impression seemingly confirmed in the first leg of the tie in Naples.
Chelsea’s Juan Mata gave Chelsea an early lead, but Napoli fought back to secure a 3-1 win thanks to goals from Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani.
Few favored Chelsea to make it out of the tie. The fallout was so bad that Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas wasn’t even permitted to preside over the second leg. Chelsea relieved him of his duties barely a week after the defeat.
Napoli arrived in London with no shortage of justified confidence. Chelsea would need to score at least two unanswered goals to advance — something that seemed unlikely with marksmen Cavani and Lavezzi again named in the Napoli side.
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Flash forward to the 75th minute, and Frank Lampard is scoring the goal that would eventually force extra time at Stamford Bridge. Against all odds Chelsea had fought back, even after gifting Napoli an away goal of their own. The wind at their backs, it was hardly shocking when Branislav Ivanović scored the winner for Chelsea in the 105th.
This was just one chapter in Chelsea’s Cinderella story that season. They would go on to beat Benfica and Barcelona on the way to the Champions League final. There, playing against Bayern Munich, they forced extra time and penalties to win their first ever European title.
Perhaps Napoli can’t count on quite that end result, but Chelsea taught them a valuable lesson. A two goal deficit is hardly insurmountable, especially with an away goal in your pocket.
Napoli showed in the first half Wednesday that they know how to play against Real. At their best they know how to absorb blows from Zinedine Zidane’s side while also delivering their own punches. If they can muster that spirit again isn’t out of the question that they upset Real’s latest run for silverware.