Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez answer their critics in Real's Napoli win
Real Madrid earned a hard fought 3-1 victory in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 round against visitors Napoli on Wednesday.
Zinedine Zidane's team dominated the match for most of the 90 minutes, and not even a defensive lapse that gave the visitors the lead made them lose their focus. Real Madrid took advantage of great performances from Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Casemiro to overcome the deficit and take an acceptable result to Italy.
The second leg, in three weeks' time, will be another tough match, but if Zidane and his squad show this determination, the outcome should fall the way of Los Blancos.
Benzema and James Rodriguez received well-deserved ovations from the Santiago Bernabeu, as both delivered in a high stakes match after some had doubted Zidane's decision to start them. They will be key at the end of the season, and a healthy relation with the Bernabeu faithful can only help.
Real Madrid reacted well to Napoli's goal, dominated the match and could have scored at least a fourth goal. Daniel Carvajal is back, which is fantastic news for Zidane's right flank. Ronaldo also showed he can be decisive without scoring.
Napoli scored after a sequence of mistakes that hands the Italian team a lifeline they hardly deserved over the 90 minutes. Some Real Madrid players, back from injury, looked exhausted in the final throes of the match. They're due to play a very tough schedule in the next four weeks, so Zidane will have to master more rotations to avoid new injuries.
Manager rating out of 10
8 -- His bet on Benzema and Rodriguez worked out well. The team started with the right focus and intensity, and did not even look rattled after Napoli scored. This shows that Zidane has worked well on their mental toughness. His substitutions may have arrived a bit late, but that's becoming one of his trademarks.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Keylor Navas, 5 -- Caught off-guard by Lorenzo Insigne for Napoli's goal, his positioning should have been better in that play. After that he was as solid as possible, but that lone mistake could cost Real Madrid dearly.
DF Daniel Carvajal, 8 -- It took no time for the stadium to realise how much they had missed Carvajal. His cross for Benzema's equaliser was a piece of beauty, and his work rate was as intense as ever.
DF Raphael Varane, 8 -- One of his most professional displays at the back, as he was as careful in his positioning as with his passing.
DF Sergio Ramos, 7 -- Picked up a yellow too early, but then settled down and had one of his trademark Champions League performances. Replaced by Pepe as he was feeling muscular pain after he took a knock.
DF Marcelo, 7 -- Very active during the first half, sometimes one second of pause would turn him into an unstoppable weapon. But then he would not be Marcelo.
MF Luka Modric, 7 -- Running on fumes towards the end of the match, he participated often and linked up well with Toni Kroos and Rodriguez. Had he been a bit more accurate in his passing, the tie would be settled already. Needs a few more matches to get back into full shape.
MF Casemiro, 9 -- His match was almost perfect defensively, and even added a few long balls and a screamer from 25 yards that closed the score.
MF Toni Kroos, 8 -- Had the patience to work Napoli's defence from side to side with pinpoint passing, but something was missing from the German until he scored with subtle class. One step forward once in a while would help the team immensely.
MF James Rodriguez, 7 -- Not his best match in terms of finishing and crossing, but indeed a great workout for the Colombian, who found his spot next to Modric and participated in several offensive moves. The Bernabeu recognised his effort.
FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 8 -- Probably his best passing match in years. He was able to wreak havoc with Napoli's defence, in a way we had not seen in a while, and presented Benzema with a handful of scoring chances. His role in Kroos' goal was simply fantastic. A pity he could not make the scoreboard.
FW Karim Benzema, 8 -- At some point in the first half it looked as though Benzema had channelled his inner Luis Suarez. He fought with Napoli's back four, stole several passes, created chances, found open teammates and scored with an emphatic header. With a bit more accuracy in his finishing, he could have scored a hat trick.
DF Pepe, 6 -- Replaced Ramos after 71 minutes. In his comeback after two months out, he took a few minutes to settle, but then played as solidly as usual.
MF Lucas Vazquez, 6 -- Replaced Rodriguez after 76 minutes. Incisive and mobile, perhaps he could have had an impact on the match with a few more minutes.
FW Alvaro Morata, NR -- Replaced Benzema after 82 minutes.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.