MADRID: 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 Napoli 3-1 on Wednesday.
Madrid are now on the brink of a seventh successive 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 from 40 yards after just eight minutes had given Napoli a shock lead at the Bernabeu.
However, 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 equalise before second-half strikes from Toni Kroos and Casemiro gave Madrid a commanding lead.
“I am always happy with him,” said Zidane.
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“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,” he added.
Benzema’s goal also moved him ahead of compatriot Thierry Henry as top French scorer of all-time in the Champions League proper.
“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.”
Napoli had chances to set up a mouthwatering second leg on March 7 as Dries Mertens blazed over with the goal at his mercy and former Madrid winger Jose Maria Callejon had a goal ruled out for offside late on.
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However, Napoli boss 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,” said Sarri. “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%, but we can’t lose our confidence because we have the return game and league games to come.
“We don’t have a great chance of turning it around but we have a chance.”
Even a pre-match pep talk from former Napoli great Diego Maradona couldn’t inspire the Italians to victory.
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However, Sarri believes their fast start more than justified his decision to invite the Argentine into the dressing room before kick-off.
“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,” he said.
Despite that early blow, though, Madrid responded like European champions to take control and Sarri lamented his side’s distribution from the back under Real’s intense pressing.
“It was difficult to mount counter-attacks because we gave the ball away so much,” he said.
“We were playing a very good team, the best team in the world. The only thing is I feel we committed more errors than normal.
“It is normal to suffer in this stadium, it is normal to commit errors, but thanks to these type of games you improve,” he added.