Saturday February 11 2017
Can Napoli get Real?

The Partenopei are on the rise, writes Andrea Tallarita, but playing Real Madrid presents two new problems.

Napoli are surging. They've gone the last 13 matches undefeated, they recently ravaged Bologna 7-1, and former sub Dries Mertens is playing arguably better than any other striker in Serie A. Surely, if there's a good time to play Champions League juggernauts Real Madrid, then that time is now?

The question of whether the Partenopei are ready to take on Real Madrid is surprisingly layered. A comparison of the two teams' performances in their domestic leagues turns up unexpected numbers, as the Italian club actually have better stats overall.

Maurizio Sarri's team is already one of the best in Europe at holding possession. They complete more passes and attack more efficiently than Zinedine Zidane's men. The two teams are also roughly equal in terms of chances created and goals scored, whilst defence is just about the only category where the Spaniards have a significant advantage.

And yet comparing the same exact data fields in the two clubs' Champions League games paints a very different picture. When considering the elite tournament alone, Napoli are much the worse side in every category. In terms of the back-line, the difference is appalling: Squawka puts their defensive scores as 183 to 33, and there's no need to tell you who leads.

These numbers are hard evidence of something everyone already suspected: in terms of raw technical quality, Napoli have more than enough to match and even outdo their Champions League rivals over two games. But they lack the mental fortitude to perform at their best on the international stage, an arena which the Merengues approach like a warm jacuzzi. For all intents and purposes, the Spaniards will be playing both games at home.

Unfortunately, this is an issue that has no easy fix. Or if it does, then it's in the hands of a motivational guru like Antonio Conte, and not in those of a tactical Jean-Paul Sartre like Sarri. For this reason alone, we must assume that the Italians start at a disadvantage, as reflected in the Real Madrid and Napoli Champions League betting.

In terms of tactics, Napoli have recently found a more cohesive shape compared to recent, uneven performances. Much like their rivals Inter and Roma, they are reaping the ongoing benefits of a newly settled tactical system, with Mertens a revelation in his new role as a False Nine.

And yet there is at least one issue that Sarri should be concerned about. Looking across all competition, Napoli scored 79% of their goals from open play against 65% by Real Madrid.

While this testifies to the Vesuviani's energetic attack, it also means they are less versatile. The Blancos, by contrast, are more balanced, being better at finding the net not just from open play, but on set-pieces and counter-attacks too.

All talk of individual quality set aside, Real Madrid emerge as more of an all-round team, whilst Napoli are something of a one-trick pony. This may seem counter-intuitive, considering the variety of goals the latter club have scored in recent games and the fact that they can attack equally well from all sides.

And yet four in five of these goals came from the same possession-based set-up, meaning that Napoli depend very, very heavily on that playing style. If Zidane can shut that down, or at least mitigate it early enough, then he has practically won the match. His opponents don't have an equivalent counter.

Sarri certainly knows that. He recently affirmed that he absolutely wouldn't change Napoli's tactical system, which testifies to its success, but also to the fact that he has no real alternatives.

If Napoli were truly ready to play Real Madrid (if anyone can ever be 'ready' for an opponent of this calibre), then they'd have the means to adopt the most appropriate plan: play a cautious, defensive game at the Bernabeu, with a view towards taking greater risks later at the San Paolo.

But the Azzurri can't do that. Their evolution over the season has been so random and stumbling – the product of absurdly-timed injuries, and of rapidly changing circumstances – that they ended up with a highly productive attacking system that has neither back-line nor back-up. Coming out swinging is the only thing they can do.

Those who state the truth must often be blunt – and the truth is that such an approach has very low odds of working out for the Neapolitans. With the chasm in quality between the two teams' respective defences, and the spreading of the result over two games, Sarri will have to pull off a tactical masterpiece to make it to the next round.

Alternatively, Zidane needs to go for a tactical Coupe de Boule. The silver lining? Win or lose, this mad effort should make for some rapid-fire, turbulent, gorgeous football.

Have your say...
Great post.
on the 27th March, 2017 at 10:02am
Anonymous..... I said Juve always suffers against Napoli.. I never said Juve always loses. I dont recall Juve ever beating napoli by a large margin. Since 2011? I think Napoli are better today than they were in 2011. Again, Im not sure what games your watching or which words of mine you are misunderstanding. "YOUR STRUGGLE IS MORE REAL"
on the 16th February, 2017 at 7:14pm
@Dennis The same with Zielinski playing badly important fixtures as Polish international. On the contrary Milik is a lad who can take psychological pressure easily. I'd put Allan and Arek in a Napoli starting squad.
on the 14th February, 2017 at 10:44am
@ Ravinelli,

I think you make some very good points here.
on the 14th February, 2017 at 4:01am
@Anon thanks for that at least you understand where I am coming from. @ForzaNapoli I have been watching Napoli since the heydays of Maradona. In the 1986/87 season Napoli went to Turin with the belief that they could win. Despite dominating the 1st half they found themselves 1-0 down via Michael Laudrup but Napoli had Diego and when motivated nothing stops him as he tortured Juve till the succumbed 1-3. In the last 2 seasons Napoli barely laid a glove on Juve despite having more possession. They
on the 14th February, 2017 at 12:06am
Aside form the game plans and history and all that, I think Napoli's biggest issue will be psychological.

And no, not even "guru" Conte can help with that because he couldn't really do much to help a very shaky and nervous Juve side a few years ago in Europe.

On the other hand, nobody will blame Napoli if they go out to RM. So hopefully this idea will alleviate some of the weight of this fixture.

I just hope that Napoli try to have fun and play their own game.
on the 13th February, 2017 at 9:31pm
@forza Napoli - that used to be true but unlike you time seems to have moved on since 2011. and in the last 12 matches Juve won 7, lost 2 and drew 3 times against Napoli in Serie A. the struggle is real

"Juventus always struggles against Napoli. Im not sure what games you are watching."

and second of all Dennis is obviously talking about Napoli's mentality in Europe and he literally said which matches he was watching
on the 13th February, 2017 at 6:19pm

Juventus always struggles against Napoli. Im not sure what games you are watching.

but i guess you will see soon enough.
on the 13th February, 2017 at 5:16pm
I hope Napoli surprises us all and knocks Real out! Not impossible
on the 13th February, 2017 at 12:36am
starting counter attacks. In big games the likes of Insigne, Hysai and Ghoulam play like amateurs hence my use of the word "if". Unlike Juventus there is no cynicism or old school kind of defending in Napoli's play and they cannot afford to trade blows with RM's players. Last year with Higuain they went out to an inferior side in Villareal playing "good football" as they could do nada to change the way they play. So pardon me if I am skeptical of their chances
on the 11th February, 2017 at 11:50pm
In the CL this season alone they have trashed Benfica but then go and lose to Beskitas at home, draw 0-0 with Kiev at home. In the league lost to Roma at home, drew with Palermo etc. Not sure why u are up in arms re the article as its spot on. Sarri is 1 trick pony as are Wenger and even Pep but what a trick eh? Do Napoli play better football than RM? Hell yeah! but RM have far more match winners in their squad. They hardly score goals on the counter even tho they have the best ever keeper in
on the 11th February, 2017 at 11:44pm
@Maradonamac I am assuming that you are an individual that understands what the word "if" means. I said IF Napoli play to their best. I have seen a lot of Napoli and they do have a Jerkyll and Hyde personality even in the same game. They were wonderful against Milan all of 30 minutes and then average the rest of the game. Against Bologna were they were brilliant, they were aided by the referee that sent of the Bologna defender wrongly (God forbid that was against Juve) and Destro missed a pen.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 11:33pm
Real madrid are absolute favourites, but we are just as capable of causing an upset. As for not having an alternative gameplan, just look at bvb when they reached the finals a few years back. They played against RM with their gegenpress and quick football and it worked. It goes to show that our unpredictable football can't always be neutered. Having someone like diawara will also serve well, he is great at breaking up play so hopefully he gets the nod. I think we can agree it;ll be a spectacle
on the 11th February, 2017 at 9:54pm
Andrea, you are correct in saying that Madrid are favorites. I agree, but know how good Napoli are, and I wouldn't be stunned to see them win home and away.

My disagreement with your comments, are that they seem very dismissive and disrespectful; hence...

"Napoli are something of a one-trick pony"

"If Zidane can shut that down, or at least mitigate it early enough, then he has practically won the match."

"Coming out swinging is the only thing they can do"

You haven't seen much of Napoli imo
on the 11th February, 2017 at 9:16pm
Maradonamac, I'm not at all writing Napoli off. I'm making a forecast based on the knowledge available to me. This forecast may very well turn out to be wrong, but surely it's not controversial to say that RM are the favourites?
on the 11th February, 2017 at 9:04pm
So, Napoli haven't been there before, and Madrid have won it 11 times. Yes, that MUST mean that Napoli should stay at home, because all that history has relevance now, right?

Oh, and Madrid also knocked Napoli out of the old (best version) European Cup 30 years ago. Again, Madrid must surly win based on that too, correct?

Let's just forget that Napoli play the best football in Europe and score goals for fun.

They don't have a prayer.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 7:00pm
@ Dennis

"we are talking about playing against the 11 times champs"

"they just do not to have the belief they can score let alone win. I also do not like Sarri's choice of Diawara in the mf as he is a clone of Obi Mikel to me. Modric will eat him alive let alone Kroos. Under Zz RM have Casemiero to quench fires Napoli have no one"

"If Napoli play to their best they will definitely give RM a game or perhaps eliminate them"

So you're going for a draw??? Do YOU even understand you?
on the 11th February, 2017 at 6:55pm

My issue is that you've wrote Napoli off before they've even landed in Madrid, by simply playing your own game of "football stats" on a piece of paper. They game isn't played on paper, and anything can happen. Just how you've come to your conclusion by favoring stats and ignoring what Napoli produce on the field is beyond me.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 6:50pm
"Andrea first and foremost seria A is by far more superior to La Liga." Somebody actually wrote the above and was not kidding. I do have a soft spot for SerieA but give me a break with the other leagues are inferior/overrated routine. They have caught up and in some cases usurped Serie A a long time ago. If Napoli play to their best they will definitely give RM a game or perhaps eliminate them but the big question is can they play their best in a really big game?
on the 11th February, 2017 at 5:25pm
@ anonymous

"More superior" is a tautology and gramatically incorrect.

It's "Serie A", not "Seria A".

Learn to use commas.

Perhaps these blogs look as though they've been written by 12-year-old kids high on sugar, but your comments look like they were written by mashing your face into the keyboard with your eyes shut.

Good day, sir. I SAID GOOD DAY.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 4:51pm
This site lacks balance, the opinion is driven by what Italy has to say, when it should become a little more modern and European to its approach to analysis and blogs. I caught the Fiorentina blog recently - I have to say the blogs feel like they have been written by 12 year olds high on sugar. Almost zero analysis with balance. You simply don't learn that proper content attracts.
This has been enough for me. I won't be back. You lost a reader.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 4:20pm
Andrea (3) "but also to the fact that he has no real alternatives"
I watch Napoli every week, Sarri's 433 is rarely just that, tactically he is always looking at the opposition while sticking to his game idea and as weeks go on Napoli are actually at team building(built) on more alternatives in their game. You are taking the very ignorant approach common in Italy when it comes to Napoli. It is the CL - Europe tells us what they think because they matter more than the banal Italian view.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 4:13pm
Andrea first and foremost seria A is by far more superior to La Liga. Every sports analyst touts how great La Liga stars are but in Seria A they would not be 1/2 as effective as they are in their league. Furthermore La Liga has the worst defense system out of all the leagues so it's easy for players like Ronaldo and Messi to score so many goals. As for Napoli if the officiating is not one sided as it has been in favor of Ronaldo and company then you will see a great game for Napoli.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 4:11pm
Of course they can go through.

R Madrid may be CL holders, but they weren't the strongest squad in Europe last season and probably aren't this year either.

Barca and Bayern don't look quite as impressive either and the epl sides are overrated, so this could be the season for Juventus to go far.

As for Napoli, they'll rightly start as 2nd-favourites, but they are more than capable of scoring the goals to push Madrid all the way.

Juve to progress, Napoli to give Madrid a real scare.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 4:06pm
Andrea (part 2) Albiol and K2 is the core strength of Napoli and they haven't played so much this season together as last - the back line with Maksi and Tonelli is a bit of transition needed. Napoli defensively lets say have sacrificed a little too much to prove in attack what they are, but it has also shown to be solid when needed that back line. RM will likely go through, Napoli will need to be at their best defensively as a 'group'- sure.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 3:55pm
Andrea, check the stats in terms of performance, possession, accuracy around Europe its at the top, so their game in nature is less about defensive actions - RM are not stylistically close enough to justify comparison(CL groups are also quality defined). The other aspect is defensive quality - Napoli are second in terms of shots conceded in Serie A, their defence was 2nd best in Italy last season.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 3:27pm
I think Napoli do stand a decent chance. Perhaps 30%. They're more than capable of getting an away goal and I'm confident they will. As long as they don't ship more than 2 at the other end, they'll have it all to play for in the return leg.
on the 11th February, 2017 at 1:57pm
RM have lost of experience in this competition while Napoli do not. I am not hating on Napoli ccos I like em a lot but every time I have seen them against Juve in Turin, they just do not to have the belief they can score let alone win. I also do not like Sarri's choice of Diawara in the mf as he is a clone of Obi Mikel to me. Modric will eat him alive let alone Kroos. Under Zz RM have Casemiero to quench fires Napoli have no one. For Napoli to stand a chance Insigne, Mertens etc have to bring it
on the 11th February, 2017 at 1:13pm
Though I like Napoli as they play some fantastic stuff and in Dries Martens they have the best player in Itaky right now, we are talking about playing against the 11 times champs. Would you guys be really that confident if this was against Juventus talk less of a side superior to Juve in the CL? When have Napoli proved that they have the mental strength to beat a side like RM? RM are not Bologna and I just do not think Napoli truly believe they can win and whenever that happens they're impotent
on the 11th February, 2017 at 1:04pm
I honestly hope Napoli wins and kicks them out, i have no love for Real and it'll be good for the league hopefully having two teams in the next round. I just couldn't not react to the drivel Pino wrote. last time Napoli went this far in the CL was in 2012 right, in the meantime you were kicked out of the group once and lost to Atletico and failed to qualify the next year so it's a little dishonest to say Napoli are the only ones holding their own in CL. Forza Juve, Forza Napoli, Forza Serie A
on the 11th February, 2017 at 12:50pm

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