Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane refused to criticize Gareth Bale as the 11-time winners eclipsed a dismal first half to end SSC Napoli’s Champions League quarter-final hopes with a clinical 3-1 win at the Stadio San Paolo on Tuesday.
Bale returned to Real’s starting lineup alongside Cristiano Ronaldo for the second leg of their last-16 clash after he — due to suspension — and injured Ronaldo missed a 4-1 league win against Sociedad Deportiva Eibar at the weekend.
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.
However, Zidane was quick to brush off claims Bale had not performed his defensive duties.
“I don’t agree at all,” Zidane said. “In the first half, none of us played well.”
Real advanced 6-2 on aggregate and go into the hat for Friday’s quarter-final draw hoping for a slice of fortune as they maintain hopes of being crowned European champions for the 12th time.
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 expects 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,” said Zidane, who played against the Azzurri on several occasions during a five-year spell with 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,” Zidane said.
“The fact two of our goals came from corners doesn’t matter,” he said. “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 after the halftime interval.
When Napoli captain Marek Hamsik gave away possession minutes after the restart, Toni Kroos’ dangerous cross to the back post was cleared by the head of Mertens for a corner.
The danger of Hamsik’s error became apparent when Ramos rose to meet Kroos’ delivery from the flag to stretch the back of the Napoli net.
Napoli’s dream died six minutes later when Kroos delivered again from the corner flag and Ramos’ glancing header at the near post came off Mertens to leave Pepe Reina rooted to the spot.
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