Getty Images/Getty Images
February 14, 2017
Napoli’s last trip to the Santiago Bernabeu didn’t go so well. Fresh from celebrating being crowned Serie A champions for the first time in the 1986/87 campaign, the Partenopei were pitted against Real Madrid, who promptly showed Diego Maradona and Co. that they were not yet part of the European elite.
Under Dutch coach Leo Beenhakker, they would run out 2-0 winners thanks to a penalty from Michel and an own goal by the aptly named Fernando de Napoli, eventually eliminating the Italian side 3-1 on aggregate.
To make the game even more surreal, UEFA had forced the Spanish champions to play behind closed doors as a punishment for crowd trouble against Bayern Munich a year earlier, per Marca.
Adam Digby @Adz77
Haunting shot of the last time #Napoli went to the Bernabeu. Real Madrid were forced to play without fans due to previous crowd trouble https://t.co/cBh3uFtCDb
2/13/2017, 11:08:35 AM
It is expected to be different when they go head-to-head once again this week, with the Football Italia website reporting that over 10,000 Napoli fans will make the trip despite their 3,900 allocated tickets selling out “within minutes.”
Indeed, that should see the Spanish stadium full to capacity as usual, with those visiting supporters also hoping to see a more favourable result this time around. The away side will arrive in good spirits, unbeaten in their last 18 matches after a late-October defeat to Juventus.
In truth, it took Napoli about a month to recover from that setback, but since December, they have been impressive, outscoring opponents by 39 goals to 15 across a 13-game spell. Winning all but two of those clashes, this is a side full of belief and one that will visit the Spanish capital looking to take the tie to Zinedine Zidane’s men.
James Horncastle @JamesHorncastle
Real Madrid be afraid, be very afraid. Hamsik and Mertens on fire https://t.co/YAIgauxSqA @btsportfootball #napoli
2/4/2017, 10:50:19 PM
But can they spring an upset against the reigning holders of the Champions League? While there are a number of players in blue who will need to shine if they are to do so, it will undoubtedly fall upon one man to make the difference for Napoli: coach Maurizio Sarri.
Simply put, the 58-year-old has been a revelation during his 18-month stint with the club, transforming them from the temperamental and leaky side they were under predecessor Rafael Benitez into a dangerous, cohesive and well-drilled unit capable of beating even the best teams.
Last year, they pushed Juventus all the way in the Serie A title race, but his work this season has been arguably even more impressive. Sarri not only helped the Partenopei overcome Gonzalo Higuain’s decision to join the Old Lady but also found a solution when his replacement was struck down by injury.
20- #Mertens has been involved in 20 goals in this Serie A (16 goals, 4 assists), 10 more than in the last season (5 goals, 5 assists). King
2/10/2017, 9:23:14 PM
Summer signing Arkadiusz Milik quickly stepped into the void left by the Argentina star, netting seven goals in just 593 minutes of action before disaster struck. Limping out of action during October’s international break, statements from his club and the Polish FA (h/t ESPN FC) revealed the striker needed surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Sarri first attempted to field Manolo Gabbiadini in the central role of his 4-3-3 formation, only for him to fail so miserably that he was sold to Southampton in January. Instead, the coach opted to deploy Dries Mertens there and the Belgium flyer has seized the opportunity with both hands.
Given he is usually a winger and stands just 5’7” (1.69m) tall, it would be easy to assume that Sarri had followed the trend towards using a “false nine,” but nothing could be further from the truth.
As can be seen in the video above, the majority of his goals have come from Mertens making traditional centre-forward runs, finishing off the excellent approach play of those around him.
That, in turn, means Napoli have not had to change their style, it’s just that the guy in the striker role is smaller than usual. The graphic in the tweet below shows that his 16 league goals have all come from the central area of the pitch, perfectly in line with any other forward, and he certainly isn’t dropping deep to pick up possession.
Adam Digby @Adz77
Where Dries Merten’s has scored his 16 league goals from (via @Squawka) https://t.co/0VQRdM9D80
2/13/2017, 12:25:06 PM
But despite his 20 goals and six assists in all competitions, this team is about much more than Mertens. Former Real Madrid man Jose Callejon and homegrown star Lorenzo Insigne bring pace and creativity to the attack, their ability to drag defenders wide often creating space for their in-form team-mate to exploit.
Throw in Marek Hamsik’s ability to get into the box—his nine goals make him the team’s second-highest goalscorer—and it is little surprise that Napoli boast Serie A’s most devastating attack.
Their league tally of 57 goals after 24 matches is seven more than any other side, while it is no accident that Sarri’s men also lead the Italian top flight in terms of possession (58.7 percent) and pass completion (87.1 percent), according to WhoScored.com statistics.
Adam Digby (via wyscout).
Their patient buildup starts from deep in their own half, with midfielder Jorginho often dropping between the central defenders to pick up the ball. Then, as the image above—taken from January’s away win over AC Milan—shows, the Brazilian has no shortage of options from there.
It was that approach that led to Jorginho leading Europe’s top five leagues in terms of passes completed, according to this Opta tweet, while WhoScored figures show him leading Serie A again this term with 88.4 completed attempts per game.
That is something that should cause problems for Real Madrid, but it is without the ball where Napoli must prove they can compete. Sarri has improved their defence dramatically, the team now working for each other and ensuring they maintain a solid shape whenever possession is lost.
Adam Digby (via wyscout).
This, too, was evident in that win over Milan, with the coach asking his wide players to drop back and defend against the opposition full-backs, and the image above shows them adopting a 4-4-1-1 shape without the ball in order to do just that.
It is notable that Hamsik (circled) often pushes forward to press the ball, while Callejon and Insigne drop back to protect the flanks. Small details such as these have made a major difference, and Sarri will be meticulously planning his tactical approach for this clash.
With Milik expected to be healthy enough for a place on the bench, giving him yet another weapon, the former Empoli boss will not be lacking options. His side can sit deep or force the issue, build play slowly through Jorginho or strike on the break with the pace of Insigne, Callejon and Hamsik.
Maurizio Sarri will be ready.CARLO HERMANN/Getty Images
Mertens will be ready to punish any hesitation or mistake from the Real Madrid defence, while the visitors now have the collective belief that they can secure a positive result.
“If Napoli were to lose, they will do so against the European champions. Nothing will happen,” Madrid native Pepe Reina told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia). “If they win, on the other hand, they will prove to be a phenomenon, changing forever from a personal perspective.”
Their goalkeeper is right, and what an opportunity they have to leave the Bernabeu as silent as it was on that famous night 30 years ago.