WEDNESDAY night's match-up in Madrid between Real and Napoli promises plenty. We asked European football expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) for his best bet.
Real Madrid v Napoli | Wednesday 19:45 | BT Sport
Real Madrid are seeking to become the first team in the Champions League era to successfully defend the trophy but Los Blancos face a potentially tricky tie with Napoli in the Last 16.
The Spanish giants have reached the semi-finals in each of the past six seasons and boast an enviable record at the Bernabeu in Europe’s elite competition – W33-D4-L2, scoring in all 33 encounters – but doubts remain over Real’s ability as top-class conquerors.
Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten streak came to a close at Sevilla back in mid-January and that was one of four fixtures that Zinedine Zidane’s troops have failed to win over their past seven outings. During that same sample, Celta Vigo dumped Los Blancos out of the Copa del Rey over two legs.
Regular watchers of Real since Zidane took charge will have noted that the 11-times winners of the Champions League have appeared more functional than flashy under the Frenchman with many results ground out as opposed to overwhelming their opposition with power, pace and control.
Injuries to Luka Modric and Gareth Bale haven’t helped Madrid’s cause so they’ll be chuffed to have the diminutive Croatian back in midfield alongside Toni Kroos and Casemiro for Wednesday night. Bale remains absent but the trio of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro are as good as any on the planet and provide a wonderful base.
On Saturday Los Blancos fielded a back-three, an unexpected ploy that may have been adopted with an eye on this game but the La Liga leaders looked a lot more assured when switching back to a flat back-four. Either way, defensively they remain vulnerable with no Last 16 side shipping more goals in the group-stage (10).
Napoli will be hoping to add their name to the list of Italian luminaries to have enjoyed great success against Spain’s most famous club. Real Madrid have been eliminated in seven of their last eight ties with Serie A sides in this competition and the Partenopei pitch up at the Bernabeau packing plenty of punch.
Led by Maurizio Sarri, a chain-smoking former banker who started out as a part-time coach in the regional amateur game, Napoli have churned out 11 wins from 13 unbeaten outings across all competitions. Delve deeper and the visitors have avoided defeat in 18 since a narrow loss at table-toppers Juventus back in October.
The Partenopei are a well-drilled team with a clearly defined style of play that has yielded an average of just under two goals per-game so far this season. The short, sharp combinations and switches of attack has caused plenty of problems for opposition defences and Napoli will fancy their prospects of getting on the scoresheet.
Dries Mertens has hit he headlines having scored three hat-tricks among his 15 goals in 15 starts in all competitions since switching to a false nine role at the point of Napoli’s attack. But the left-hand side of Faouzi Ghoulam, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne offers fierce threat and Jose Callejon is more than capable of hurting defences.
The Serie A side are only in the Last 16 for the second time and although a lack of experience shouldn’t hinder their chances, like Madrid it’s at the back where I have my doubts. Kalidou Koulibaly commands the backline brilliantly but the aggressively high press can occasionally leave the Neapolitans exposed to swift counter-attacks.
Goals the best form of attack
Napoli have conceded twice or more on eight occasions so far this season and with Italians teams boasting a W1-D4-L14 knockout stage record at Spanish venues during the Champions League era, I’m prepared to overlook a first leg upset and instead focus on goals.
Both Teams To Score and Over 2.5 Goals can be backed at 9/10 with Stan James and that looks just the ticket considering it’s a selection that proved profitable in all six of Real Madrid’s group-games, as well as four of Napoli’s six European ties.
Collectively the pair have only failed to find the back of the net in three games during 2016/17 whilst Both Teams To Score has paid out in seven of Real Madrid’s last eight encounters and in nine of Napoli’s past 10 matches.
Real Madrid v Napoli – Both Teams To Score and Over 2.5 Goals (9/10 Stan James)