Thursday 16 February 2017

Can Napoli pull off a shock against Real Madrid in the Champions League?

Will Napoli’s Jose Maria Callejon have an impact against ex-side Real Madrid?

When the draws were announced, some results were easily predicted. Real Madrid vs. Napoli was certainly one of them. After all, Los Blancos are the not just the reigning champs, but also are the all-time winners in this competition. Meanwhile, the Partenopei are only in the round of 16 for the second time – and to date they have not cleared this stage. Ever.

To date, no team has managed to win back to back Champions League titles. The last to do this was AC Milan back in 1989 and 1990, and that was before the tournament was re-formatted in 1992. Real Madrid, of course, are seeking to become the first. Los Blancos have won 11, which includes last season’s triumph at the Stadio San Siro in an all-Madrid clash against cross-town rivals Atletico.

But as we saw earlier today, the heavy favorites do not always win. Barcelona were expected to take care of business against PSG – and they are now the ones facing an early elimination after losing 4-0 at the Parc des Princes.

And of course, there have been countless other upsets in past tournaments. So, do Napoli have any shot at overcoming the all-time Champions League winners? Can David’s slingshot slay Goliath in this instance? Perhaps, and let’s see why.
1. No Gareth Bale…and a misfiring Karim Benzema

Remember Real Madrid’s famed “BBC” attack? Well, they certainly are not in song. For starters, Welsh star Gareth Bale may have returned to training, but he’s not 100% fit just yet and so will miss this first leg. Then there’s Karim Benzema. Fans have been clamoring for the French striker to be permanently replaced by Alvaro Morata, but so far, Zinedine Zidane continues to show faith in his countryman – despite him being on a six game scoreless streak.

Yes, there is a certain guy named Cristiano Ronaldo, who, as we have all seen can carry a team on his broad shoulders. Just ask any Sweden fan about that famous two-legged playoff tie against Portugal. Or rather, the two-part affair that should have been called CR7 vs. Zlatan. Four goals scored by the Portuguese ace were enough to secure his team’s passage to Brazil and earn him yet another Ballon d’Or.

But with that in mind, every player does have an off day. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar were all in a funk in the game against Les Parisiens, and Messi in particular was especially awful. Napoli will hope that CR7 will have a bad day at the office as they prepare to face the toughest opponent they have this season.
2. An in form attack…with goals coming from unlikely sources

Napoli have adjusted quite well since Gonzalo Higuain’s departure. Sure, they would have loved to have him in the squad – and especially  for their upcoming game, but such is life in football. They have managed, and this is even after Arkadiusz Milik suffered an ACL injury whilst on international duty. The Polish international had started off his debut term in Serie A well, and there were fears that their attack would stutter.

Enter Dries Mertens. The Belgian has been a surprising revelation, and has racked up an impressive 16 goals in Serie A. That includes three hat-tricks, which is something that no other player has achieved. He’s also scored a whopping 14 goals from his last 11 outings. Then there’s Jose Maria Callejon, who will be eager to make an impact against his former side. Callejon has nine assists so far in Serie A, and he has arguably been one of the biggest contributors to Napoli’s solid showings this term. And finally, skipper Marek Hamsik has 109 goals and needs just six to match Diego Maradona’s all-time goal-scoring record – and the legend himself will reportedly be in attendance.
3. Real Madrid’s Italian difficulties

Yes, they have won 28 out of their last 33 European ties at the Santiago BernabĂ©u. And they have won 22 out of their last 31 home ties with Italian sides. However, here’s a stat that may gave Partenopei fans hope: Los Blancos have been eliminated in seven of their last eight home/away ties with Italian sides in the European Cup/Champions League. The only exception was against Roma.

Now, that fact will surely make Serie A fans take pause. The Giallorossi bowed out without scoring a single goal – and more significant, that was last season en route to winning the coveted big-eared trophy.

And finally, there’s the absence of expectations. No one is expecting Napoli to get past this hurdle. After all, they have never cleared the round of 16 and only finished top of their group for the first time, whereas for Real Madrid, getting at least to the final four is a given – anything less is not considered a failure.

But will this be enough to see the underdogs through? We will possibly find out after the first leg showdown in Spain’s capital on Wednesday evening. Certainly, Real Madrid will have much food for thought after watching their bitter rivals’ humiliation in Paris as they hope to take one step closer towards becoming the first side to successfully defend their Champions League title in the modern era.

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