Holders Real Madrid recovered from an early deficit to beat Napoli 3-1 in their Champions League round-of-16 clash at the Santiago Bernabeu with a Casemiro thunderbolt from range the highlight on an action-packed Wednesday night.
Zinedine Zidane picked Benzema over Alvaro Morata and started James Rodriguez too, as Los Blancos trotted out in their tried-and-tested 4-3-3 formation.
Napoli, who have been in impressive form in the Serie A, matched the hosts’ formation with Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and ex-Real Madrid man Jose Maria Callejon making for an extremely potent attacking trio.
Madrid started the game on the front foot, coming close to scoring but Pepe Reina was equal to Benzema’s shot from inside the box after Cristiano Ronaldo had set him up.
It was the visiting side who would score the opening goal of the night, as Marek Hamsik’s through ball from inside his own half released the pacy Insigne. The 25-year-old saw Keylor Navas was off his line and let loose a curling shot close to 40 yards out with his first touch to silence the Bernabeu in the 11th minute. Navas desperately scrambled to somehow get to the ball, but his poor positioning had left him with little chance.
Madrid didn't take long to respond, Benzema rising high to head in a delightful outside-of-the-boot cross from Dani Carvajal just seven minutes later. He repaid his manager’s faith in him with a classic striker’s goal to calm the home side’s nerves and with Gareth Bale on the verge of making a comeback, gave Zidane a welcome dilemma as we near the business end of the footballing season.
The stage was set for Ronaldo to then put Madrid in the lead after Luka Modric had slipped him in, but the Portuguese superstar skied his shot, much to Napoli’s relief.
Ronaldo then almost created the perfect assist for Benzema, sending in an early low cross for the French forward but the finish was just wide.
Hamsik had gone close to adding a second for Napoli in what was an extremely open 45 minutes but the teams went to the dressing rooms with the scores at 1-1.
Ronaldo was not to be denied his assist, however, as he brilliantly beat his man near the byline before cutting it back for Toni Kroos, who arrived at the edge of the box like clockwork to caress the ball into the net in the 49th minute.
Madrid scored their final goal of the night just five minutes later and it came from an unlikely source, defensive midfielder Casemiro. A Napoli defender had tackled James Rodriguez near the edge of box and the ball had gone high in the air and came straight to Casemiro, who let loose with a viciously dipping volley which left Reina with no chance.
Napoli had a chance to score what could have been a decisive second away goal, but Mertens fluffed his lines spectacularly to ensure Madrid hold a definitive advantage after the first leg.
The second leg at Napoli is scheduled for the 7th of March and while Los Blancos are clearly ahead, Napoli’s home advantage cannot be underestimated.