“This is the game of the century. For people of my generation, people just turned 30, the tie with Real Madrid is THE MATCH. Obviously, you can always lose against the side that has won two of the last three Champions Leagues and given their far greater experience, not to mention purchasing power, that would be a logical result…
“However, if we should happen to win, then Napoli would immediately be catapulted into an entirely new dimension…”
Down in Naples, Champions League fever is rising. The above words from Neapolitan writer, Marco Marsullo, as told to Sportweek magazine last weekend, perfectly encapsulate the anxious, expectant mood amongst Napoli fans on the eve of a second round tie that could indeed “catapult” the club into a new dimension.
As Napoli prepare for tomorrow night’s tie away to Real Madrid, they are not going to lack either motivation or support. More than 10,000 Napoli supporters are expected at the Bernabeu stadium, some having travelled by car and boat with many of them having taken out online “membership” of Real in order to buy a match ticket.
Waiting at Madrid’s Hotel Mirasierra to greet the team will be the club’s greatest ever icon, Argentine Diego Armando Maradona. Meanwhile, many of Maradona’s team mates in the side of 30 years ago, men like Salvatore Bagni, Pepe Bruscolotti and Bruna Giordano, have been out to Napoli team training at Castel Volturno to urge Maurizio Sarri’s men to make good where they themselves failed back in September 1987.
The thing is Napoli’s relatively brief relationship with the Champions League/Cup has been marked more by disappointments than success. Having finally won an Italian league title in 1987, Napoli had the bad luck to draw Real Madrid no less in the first round of what in those days was a knock out competition, involving only league title winners. The result was that Napoli’s Champions Cup debut lasted just two games, a 2-0 away defeat and a 1-1 home draw.
In more recent times, Dame Fortune has hardly smiled on them either. Since the club returned from relegation to Serie A in the 2007-2008 season, their best performance ironically came in the 2013-14 season when, however, they went out at the group stage. Remember, that was the year when they were eliminated on goal difference despite having finished joint top of their group on 12 points, along with Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.
For all those reasons, Napoli fans tend to feel that they have not always had the best of luck in the Champions Cup/League. This time, though, it will be different, according to many. The fans are buoyed by Napoli’s current good form which has not only seen them register a 13 match unbeaten run in Serie A but which has also been marked by some recent sparkling performances including a 2-1 away over Milan, a 7-1 away win v Bologna and last Friday a 2-0 home win over Genoa.
Currently third in the league, nine points behind leaders Juventus, Napoli are sure to “give it a lash” against Real Madrid. At this point, it is hard to imagine them troubling all dominant Juventus in Serie A so why not try to push their Champions League run all the way. Subconsciously, at least, lots of their eggs seem headed for the Champions League basket.
Napoli, too, come into this tie on the back of a season which has illustrated emphatically that there is indeed life after Higuain. Even without their 36 goal Argentine hero of last season (moved on to Juventus), Napoli have continued to rattle in the goals, scoring 57 in Serie A as opposed to 49 from Juventus. This too in a season when the man brought in to replace Higuain, Polish striker Arkadi Milik, has been out through injury since last October.
With their trio of talented, not so big attackers, Spaniard José Callejon, Belgian Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, all masterminded by Slovak schemer Marek Hamsik, Napoli have darted in and out of Serie A defences all season long. Against such as Carvajal, Varane, Ramos and Marcelo tomorrow night, they could cause problems. That is if Napoli do not suffer from stage fright at the Bernabeu, but rather stand up to be counted.
Unlike his counterpart, Real coach Zinedine Zidane, who will be without injured Welshman Garth Bale, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri can call on a full squad. On the eve of this “game of the century”, he was sounding confident, telling Sky TV:
“We feel we are in good shape physically and mentally at the moment but we’re playing the world champions…We’ve got to go there with a certain apprehension…but we must not exaggerate and be too timid, that way against good teams like Real you are really risking it…”
REAL MADRID (4-3-3): Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Lucas Vazquez, Benzema, Ronaldo
NAPOLI (4-3-3): Reina; Hysaj, Koulibaly, Albiol, Ghoulam; Allan, Jorginho, Hamsik; Callejon, Mertens, Insigne.