‘LAY OFF BALE’

Zi­dane an­gered by crit­i­cism of Welsh­man as Real end Napoli’s dream

New Straits Times - - Sport -

ZINE­DINE Zi­dane re­fused to crit­i­cise Gareth Bale as 11-time win­ners Real Madrid eclipsed a dis­mal first half to end Napoli’s Cham­pi­ons Lague quar­ter-fi­nal hopes with a clin­i­cal 3-1 win at the San Paolo Sta­dium on Tues­day.

Bale re­turned to Real’s start­ing line-up along­side Cris­tiano Ron­aldo for the sec­ond leg of the sides’ last 16 clash af­ter he, due to sus­pen­sion, and in­jured Ron­aldo missed a 4-1 league win at Eibar last week­end.

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

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 main­tain hopes 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 by the 57th minute 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 the Az­zurri 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.

“The fact two of our goals came from cor­ners doesn’t mat­ter. It’s all part of the game.”

Sarri had warned of the threat from the “world’s rich­est club, with the best play­ers” a day ear­lier. And Zi­dane’s ‘Galac­ti­cos’ emerged a dif­fer­ent team at the half-time in­ter­val.

When Napoli cap­tain Marek Ham­sik gave away pos­ses­sion min­utes af­ter the restart, Toni Kroos’s dan­ger­ous cross to the back post was cleared by Mertens for a cor­ner.

The dan­ger of Ham­sik’s er­ror be­came ap­par­ent when Ramos rose to meet Kroos’s de­liv­ery from the flag to stretch the back of the Napoli net — and de­liver a huge blow to Napoli’s hopes. Napoli’s dream died six min­utes later when Kroos de­liv­ered again from the cor­ner flag and Ramos’s glanc­ing header at the near post came off Mertens to leave Reina rooted to the spot.

Sarri could only sing the Spain de­fender’s praises: “He’s world class at dead ball sit­u­a­tions. He scores seven or eight goals a year like that. “It doesn’t mat­ter whether you man mark him or mark him in the zone: the prob­lem is not just him.”

Sarri, who led Napoli to run­ners-up spot in Serie A be­hind Ju­ven­tus last year and in­spired Gon­zalo Higuain to a new league record of 36 goals, was buoyed by his side’s per­for­mance.

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.”

Napoli saw late claims for a penalty waved away when Mertens tum­bled in the box.

But the dam­age had al­ready been done, and the hosts were made to suf­fer more woe in the first minute of added-on time when Al­varo Mo­rata, for­merly of bit­ter Serie A ri­vals Ju­ven­tus, came off the bench to hit their third af­ter Reina spilled a Ron­aldo strike.

Gareth Bale

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