Real cruise into Champions League quarters – but Gareth Bale and fellow stars still under fire
Zidane says ‘lay off’ as misfiring Madrid are criticised despite 6-2 aggregate win
Zinedine Zidane refused to criticise Gareth Bale as 11-time winners Real Madrid eclipsed a dismal first half to end Napoli’s Champions Lague quarter-final hopes with a clinical 3-1 win at the San Paolo on Tuesday.
Bale returned to Real’s starting line-up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo for the second leg of the sides’ last 16 clash after he, due to suspension, and injured Ronaldo missed a 4-1 league win at Eibar last weekend.
But the Welshman was just one of several players left in the shadows by a spirited Napoli side bent on overcoming a 3-1 first leg deficit to the Spanish giants.
Maurizio Sarri’s men had 11 shots in the opening period, the most Real had seen in a Champions League game since facing 15 against Juventus in 2013.
But Zidane was quick to brush off claims Bale had not performed his defensive duties.
“I don’t agree at all,” the Real coach said. “In the first half, none of us played well.”
Real advanced 6-2 on aggregate and will go into the hat for Friday’s quarter-final draw hoping for a slice of fortune as they maintain hopes of being crowned European champions for a 12th time.
But Zidane, who had captain Sergio Ramos to thank for giving Real a 2-1 lead by the 57th minute after Dries Mertens’ superb 24th minute opener for the hosts, said he will expect improvements.
“We obviously have to do better. We knew the start here against Napoli would be hard, it’s a hard stadium to play at,” added Zidane, who played against the Azzurri on several occasions during a five-year spell at Juventus.
“We suffered a lot in the opening half, we didn’t get to play the way we had planned. In the second half we did a lot better, and I’m happy with the win.
“The fact two of our goals came from corners doesn’t matter. It’s all part of the game.”
Sarri had warned of the threat from the “world’s richest club, with the best players” a day earlier. And Zidane’s ‘Galacticos’ emerged a different team at the half-time interval.
When Napoli captain Marek Hamsik gave away possession minutes after the restart, Toni Kroos’s dangerous cross to the back post was cleared by the head of Mertens for a corner.
The danger of Hamsik’s error became apparent when Ramos rose to meet Kroos’s delivery from the flag to stretch the back of the Napoli net – and deliver a huge blow to Napoli’s hopes.
Napoli’s dream died six minutes later when Kroos delivered again from the corner flag and Ramos’s glancing header at the near post came off Mertens to leave Reina rooted to the spot.
Sarri could only sing the Spain defender’s praises: “He’s world class at dead ball situations. He scores seven or eight goals a year like that. ”It doesn’t matter whether you man mark him or mark him in the zone: the problem is not just him.“
Sarri, who led Napoli to runners-up spot in Serie A behind Juventus last year and inspired Gonzalo Higuain to a new league record of 36 goals, was buoyed by his side’s performance.
But he said if they are to compete, they will have to match Real in physical and fitness terms.
“It’s pretty clear that, in physical terms, we’re lacking something compared to teams like Real,” said the Italian.
“In the opening half we managed to keep them away from our own area a lot and that compensated somewhat.
“But in the second half, it was more difficult.”
Napoli saw late claims for a penalty waved away when Mertens tumbled in the box.
But the damage had already been done, and the hosts were made to suffer more woe in the first minute of added-on time when Alvaro Morata, formerly of bitter Serie A rivals Juventus, came off the bench to hit their third after Reina spilled a Ronaldo strike.