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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, May 27, 2024

The Final Whistle: Napoli and Real Madrid draw first blood

Graphic by Aliza Kibel

It was the perfect start. A slight hesitation allowed Mohamed Salah to pounce on Thibaut Courtois’ poorly controlled attempted clearance, burying the ball beyond the Belgian goalkeeper. 2–0 Liverpool. White shirts stood in disbelief as Anfield erupted in euphoria. Perhaps the catalyst for a much-needed resurrection for what has been a poor season for the Reds. Darwin Núñez’s first, a cheeky flick, had given Liverpool an early lead, and for a moment it seemed like Anfield’s magic was at work again. But if there’s anything stronger than Liverpool’s historic record at home it is Real Madrid’s ability to recover from a deficit.

Tuesday night will go down as another memorable Champions League night as reigning champions Real Madrid and runaway Serie A leaders Napoli firmly established leads, all but sealing their quarterfinal spots. For Madrid, a nervy start was quickly forgotten with a moment of individual brilliance from Vinicius Jr., whose right foot dagger nestled in the bottom corner of Brazilian National Team teammate Alisson Becker’s goal. Even at 2–1, the visitors seemed more composed than the hosts, who didn’t make life difficult for Real Madrid’s creative attacking outlets. Soon after, Vinicius Jr. struck again, this time scoring off Becker’s mistake in the box. Courtois’s early error essentially canceled out. With the scores tied, Madrid began dictating play. Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga dominated midfield, exchanging effortlessly while intercepting and shutting down most Liverpool attacks. Veteran Luka Modrić, playing slightly ahead, had enough time and space to thread dangerous passes for the front three.

But it wasn’t just in open play that Madrid outperformed their opponents, a perfectly executed set piece from Modric early in the second half found the head of Éder Militão. After taking the lead, it was smooth sailing for Ancelotti’s men. Reigning Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema added a fourth and fifth, capping off a scintillating night for the Spanish side.

In Frankfurt, the contest wasn’t as one-sided. Eintracht Frankfurt began the game well, playing at a high tempo and forcing several saves out of goalkeeper Alex Meret. Frenchman Kolo Muani was Frankfurt’s outstanding player, anchoring several attacks as the lone striker in front of Mario Götze and Jesper Lindstrøm. After enduring Frankfurt’s initial wave of attacks, Napoli began creating their own and were awarded a penalty in the 34th minute. Winger Khvicha Kavaratskhelia stepped up but was denied by a full-stretch save from Frankfurt’s Kevin Trapp. Shortly after, Napoli capitalized on a quick breakaway as Hirving Lozano found Victor Osimhen in the box to make it 1–0 Napoli. In the second half, Muani was sent off for stepping on midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s foot as he lunged for a loose ball. With ten men, Frankfurt was on the back foot and Napoli added a second as captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo finished a perfect backheel pass from Kvaratskhelia.

There’s no doubt that both Napoli and Real Madrid are favorites to advance after the second leg. As Liverpool center back Virgil Van Dijk said in this post-game interview, “we have an almost impossible task.” Liverpool has overturned a three-goal deficit before, but Real Madrid looks extremely solid as a unit and will be tough to break down at home. Napoli should be able to advance, but Frankfurt does possess attacking talent and an early goal in the second leg could cause an upset.