What a time to be alive! The UEFA Champions League made its much anticipated return, last night, and it didn’t disappoint one bit. We got to witness a resolute Benfica team overcome Dortmund at the impregnable Estadio da Luz, and we all had to pick our jaws off the floor, after watching Paris Saint Germain put 4 unreplied goals past the “mighty” Barcelona.
Tonight, we’ll be hoping for an encore; with two more exciting games to look forward to. Spanish giants, Real Madrid, welcome the dynamic Napoli to the Santiago Bernabeu, and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal try to take a positive result away from the Allianz arena, against Bayern Munich (both games kick off at 8:45 p.m, West African Standard time).
So, without further ado, let us dive right into today’s previews:
Real Madrid vs. Napoli:
Exactly a month ago, Real Madrid saw their 40 game unbeaten run come to an end, against Sevilla. After that, they also got knocked out of the Copa del Rey, by Celta Vigo. Despite the recent setbacks, they emerged victorious from their last La Liga game, against Osasuna, and sit at the very top of La Liga (with two games in hand). Tonight, they’ll be welcoming a free-scoring Napoli to the Bernabeu, for their first ever UCL clash against each other.
Before losing at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, they had gone on a run of 30 wins and 10 draws in all competitions; eclipsing the previous Spanish record of 39 games unbeaten (held by Barcelona). After achieving “La Decima”, in 2014, the UCL’s most successful team will now have its sights set on becoming the first ever team to retain the UEFA Champions League trophy. In the group stages, a surprising 3-3 draw away to Legia Warszawa confined them to second place, even though they finished with 12 points (ultimately behind Dortmund’s 14).
We start with a tale of two contrasting goal-scorers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema:
- Even though Ronaldo’s the team’s highest goal scorer in the League, he’s failed to find the back of the net in the Champions League since the second match-day (only 2 goals, so far). On the plus side, he leads the team in UCL assists (with 4), and he’s scored one goal in each of Madrid’s last 3 competitive games; a run of form he’ll be looking to carry into tonight’s game.
- The team’s highest UCL goal-scorer is Karim Benzema, with 4 goals; which is just one goal less than his La Liga tally. He also hasn’t scored in any of the team’s last 6 competitive games and he’ll be hoping that the return of UCL football marks a return to goal-scoring form, for him.
- With many of Madrid’s younger players stepping up to provide some competition for the older hands, Zinedine Zidane will be spoilt for options in several areas of the pitch, but he’ll probably have to continue without the services of one of the members of the “BBC”, Gareth Bale, who only just recovered from an injury he suffered in November.
The Serie A’s third best team (as of right now) comes into today’s game, in red-hot form. Their last loss in a competitive game came at the end of October, and they’ve won 12 of their 18 games since then, scoring 44 goals (2.44 per game). This run has seen them become the Serie A’s highest scoring team, and they’re also the highest in terms of ball possession and passing accuracy. Even though they’ve been scoring and winning so freely, their defence hasn’t been as hot, with 5 clean sheets earned in the same period (which isn’t bad at all; just not as impressive). Their Champions League group was a hard fought one, and their 2-1 win against Benifca finally guaranteed qualification (and first position) on the last day of the group stages.
- Since Maurizio Sarri converted him to a striker, Dries Mertens has practically morphed into the human torch. His 13 goals in all competitions, since the end of the group stages, is the highest tally in all of Europe, he has also scored 4 and assisted 2 of Napoli’s last eight UCL goals. If he can reproduce even a fraction of that form tonight, the Real Madrid defence will undoubtedly have its hands full.
- Mertens isn’t even the only player Madrid will have to worry about, as players like Piotr Zielinski, Lorenzo Insigne, Marek Hamsik and Jose Callejon (who will be playing against his former teammates) have all been in terrific form, recently.
- Kalidou Koulibaly; who’s clearly the team’s most important Center-Back will have to be careful tonight, as he’s just one yellow card away from a suspension (which will force him to miss the second leg). He should be partnered in the defence by Raul Albiol (another former Real Madrid player).
Real Madrid should go into this game as favourites. Position for position, they have a stronger squad and a lot more players with significant experience at this level. Their height advantage (especially over Napoli’s smaller forwards) is something they should be looking to exploit. However, they’ll be well aware that they cannot afford to repeat any of the sloppiness that has plagued them in recent times, as they’re going up against a team who’ll gladly convert whatever chances are given to them.
Napoli attackers have proven that they can match any of Europe’s top teams, goal-for-goal, and they will go into this tie with confidence, also drawing inspiration from Celta Vigo’s home and away masterclass against Madrid, in the Copa del Rey semifinals.
Even though the Santiago Bernabeu is usually Madrid’s fortress, in the UCL, they failed to keep any clean sheets in their group stage games, and Napoli failed to score in only one of theirs.
We should expect a very exciting game, with both teams very likely to get on the score sheet.