Tuesday February 14 2017
Napoli not to be underestimated

Real Madrid are favourites to overcome Napoli over two legs but they should take nothing for granted, writes Richard Thomas

On the surface, Real Madrid were not punished as severely as they might have been for their failure to win their Champions League group. To qualify for the Round of 16 as runners-up, in most seasons, is to leave open the risk of then being drawn against a genuine European heavyweight.

However, UEFA's decision to alter the seeding system for the Group Stage - automatically giving the domestic champions of each of Europe's top seven Leagues, plus the defending Champions League winners, top seed status - combined with some unexpected results once the action got underway meant the list of Los Blancos' potential second round opponents was far less daunting that it might have been in previous campaigns.

By the time the draw was made on December 12, the competition's most successful club knew that despite missing out on Group F's top spot to Borussia Dortmund, they would not be able to face any of Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City, or any of their fellow Spanish sides left in the mix.

Nevertheless, a two-legged tie with Serie A’s Napoli is not to be taken lightly. History and the quality of players available to Zinedine Zidane dictate that Los Blancos will kick-off Wednesday's first meeting at Santiago Bernabeu widely tipped to secure a quarter-final place, but there is a growing belief within the Italian ranks that Maurizio Sarri's team can cause a major upset - with good reason, too.

The Partenopei are unbeaten in 18 matches in all competitions, a run of form that stretches back to when they narrowly lost at Juventus in late October. They are the highest scorers in Italy's top flight this season with an impressive 57 goals in 24 matches, earning them a reputation as the current great entertainers of Italian football - as Bologna, on the end of a recent 7-1 hammering, will testify.

Although Sarri's team don't quite yet possess the consistency needed to overhaul Juve in the marathon of a League season, it is hard not to admire Napoli's progress despite the void left after losing talisman Gonzalo Higuain to the Old Lady in a mega-money and highly controversial transfer last summer. Champions League qualification looks well within reach once more, while they also have a Coppa Italia semi-final with - you guessed it - Juve to look forward to.

So who in light-blue should Zidane, Sergio Ramos, Cristiano Ronaldo and co be particularly wary of come Wednesday? Dries Mertens, initially only a makeshift forward after Arkadiusz Milik was sidelined with knee ligament damage, has been a revelation in front of goal this season. The Belgian has three Serie A hat-tricks this campaign and 16 League goals in total, giving him the lowest minutes per goal ratio of any of Italy's leading marksmen.

The 29-year-old, however, is just one cog in Sarri's wheel. Together with Lorenzo Insigne and former Madrid man Jose Callejon, the trio's link-up play, pace and skill make them a formidable unit who will relish attacking any of the space granted to them by Madrid backline.

Long-serving captain Marek Hamsik, who himself bagged a hat-trick in the Bologna demolition, is now Napoli's second-highest ever goal-scorer behind Diego Maradona and will provide able support from midfield. Milik, for his part, was prolific in the early stages of the season before sustaining his injury and is approaching a comeback. The first leg may come too soon, but the Pole will be itching to make up for lost time by having some sort of impact on the tie.

Their expansive style of play means the Partenopei are less of a sure touch defensively, but Callejon's fellow Spaniards Raul Albiol, also formerly of Los Blancos, and Pepe Reina provide Sarri's backline with invaluable experience. The duo, along with whoever plays out of Nikola Maksimovic and Kalidou Koulibaly, will have to be at their best to give Napoli hope of progression.

The Azzurri's ability to cope with Higuain's departure, however, shows that rather than any individual player, Sarri's style places the emphasis on the collective. The former Empoli Coach is highly regarded and respected by his players and has his team playing as a cohesive unit, regardless of who is selected. Callejon stated recently that he and his teammates 'love' the 58-year-old's footballing philosophy, while Albiol dubbed him 'the new Luis Aragones.'

Backed by Maradona and roared on by a passionate home crowd in the second leg at the San Paolo, Napoli should prove dangerous opponents for Madrid. They may not quite belong in the bracket of Europe's elite teams, but they have more than enough about them to ensure Los Blancos don't take their passage to the quarter-finals for granted.

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