Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane hailed the impact of Karim Benzema after his compatriot lifted the European champions from the early blow of conceding to beat SSC Napoli 3-1 on Wednesday.
Madrid are now on the brink of a seventh successive UEFA Champions League quarter-final as they aim to become the first team to retain the trophy in the Champions League era.
Lorenzo Insigne’s wonder strike after just eight minutes had given Napoli a shock lead at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Zidane was rewarded for keeping faith in Benzema, despite fierce criticism of late from the Spanish press as he headed home his 51st Champions League goal to equalize, before second-half strikes from Toni Kroos and Casemiro gave Madrid a commanding lead.
“I am always happy with him [Benzema],” Zidane said. “He needed that goal which lately he didin’t get, but I am happy not only for the goal, but also for how he played generally. He made the rest of the team play better and his movement is very good. The performances of Karim, Cristiano [Ronaldo], James [Rodriguez], they all made the rest of the team better.”
“It was a great night. We all played well, not just me,” Benzema told Spanish TV station MEGA.
“I am very happy and proud of my work. There are a lot of sacrifices, but now I feel good. I scored a goal and saw that the fans were with me, which is very good for my confidence,” he said.
Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri believes his side still have a chance of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
“Clearly Madrid played their best game of the past three months and we didn’t play our best,” Sarri said. “If we manage to play at our best we are not that far away. We may lose [in the second leg], but we can go for it.”
“It is the first game we have lost in four months. We didn’t manage to express ourselves 100 percent, but we can’t lose our confidence because we have the return game and league games to come,” he said.
“We don’t have a great chance of turning it around, but we have a chance,” he added.
Even a pep talk from former Napoli great Diego Maradona could not inspire the Italian side to victory.
However, Sarri believes their fast start more than justified his decision to invite the Argentine superstar into the dressing room before kickoff.
“Diego spoke with us for 30 seconds, but he is a legend so clearly it had an impact. Our first 10, 15 minutes were our best,” Sarri said. “We were playing a very good team, the best team in the world.”
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