Holders Real repel Napoli fightback

Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos celebrating after scoring against Napoli.
Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos celebrating after scoring against Napoli.PHOTO: REUTERS

NAPLES (Italy) • Zinedine Zidane refused to criticise Gareth Bale, as 11-time winners Real Madrid overcame a dismal first half to end Napoli's Champions League quarter-final hopes with a clinical 3-1 win at the San Paolo on Tuesday.

The Welshman returned to Real's starting line-up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo for the second leg of the sides' last-16 clash, after the pair missed the 4-1 La Liga win at Eibar last weekend.

But Bale was just one of several players left in the shadows by a spirited Napoli side bent on overcoming a 1-3 first-leg deficit to the Cup holders.

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 tomorrow's quarter-final draw hoping for a slice of fortune as they dream 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 in the second half 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 Napoli 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."

Napoli's dream died after the interval, when Toni Kroos delivered from the corner flag and Ramos' glancing header at the near post came off Mertens to make it 2-1 in the 57th minute.

Ramos had scored the equaliser just six minutes earlier.

Faced with a hopeless task, Napoli completely lost their momentum and Real coasted through the rest of the game, Alvaro Morata scoring the third goal in stoppage time.

Sarri, who led Napoli to the runners-up spot in Serie A behind Juventus last year, was buoyed by his side's performance despite the loss.

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."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2017, with the headline 'Holders Real repel Napoli fightback'. Print Edition | Subscribe