It will be battle of wits along the way with the return of the lucrative UEFA Champions League after a lengthy hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and today’s fixture at Nou Camp between Barcelona and Napoli should be a foretaste of things to come.
Spanish giants Barcelona restart their Champions League campaign after a lengthy COVID-19 hiatus with a visit from a Napoli team who, despite winning their first trophy in six years in June, have struggled to find any real consistency this season.
The Lionel Messi-led Barca take on the Italian side at the Nou Camp tonight with it all to play for after they drew the first leg 1-1 in Naples in February.
Barcelona endured a difficult league campaign themselves this year. Despite leading La Liga before the break, they capitulated upon a return to football and were unable to secure a third successive title, as they finished five points behind rivals Real Madrid. They will seek redemption for their league failings by lifting their fifth UEFA Champions League trophy.
Barcelona’s manager Quique Setien is reportedly considering switching to a back three as the match is particularly significant given their poor domestic season, in which they finished runners-up to Real Madrid in La Liga and were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Athletic Club in the quarter-finals.
Setien, who replaced Ernesto Valverde in January, has found himself under increasing pressure, with rumours of a bust-up with a number of key first-team players over his tactics.
According to Spanish publication SPORT, he is weighing up the idea of playing a 3-5-2 formation in a bid to beat Napoli – a big change from his usual favoured 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2.
Observers of Barcelona’s training sessions have seen Nelson Semedo, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet trialled in the new system, with Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba expected to operate as full-backs.
Barcelona are in turmoil going into the Napoli clash and Setien’s future at the club may be at stake in the game against Napoli, and if Barcelona are knocked out there is a good chance he could face the sack.
“This game represents the entire year,” a visibly angry Li Messi told LaLigaTV after losing to Osasuna last month. “We have been an erratic and weak team.
“I said some time ago that playing like this we had no chance of winning the Champions League, and it turns out we didn’t even have enough to win La Liga.
“We need to take a breather, let some air in, and clean our minds of all that has happened since December. Playing like this we will lose against Napoli; we have to start from zero in the Champions League.”
Barcelona had a poor start to 2020 and couldn’t keep pace at top of the league after COVID-19 lockdown and finished the season with their lowest points total since 2008-a season that led the club to turn to Pep Guardiola to inject life into a bloated heavyweight.
There appears to be no such saviour this time around. Neither of Spain’s big two have enjoyed a vintage campaign, but Barça have been blighted by behind-the-scenes drama, including a managerial change, a public spat between sporting director Eric Abidal and captain Messi, and a bizarre transfer saga.
Arthur, a talented Brazilian midfielder, had been hit-and-miss in his two seasons in Catalonia, but at 23 has plenty of time to improve. Instead, the club have traded him to Juventus for Miralem Pjanic, an excellent playmaker in his own right, but seven years Arthur’s senior.
In the meantime, Setién has admitted that he’s not used to dealing with a dressing room as senior and vaunted as the one found at Camp Nou, and has been unable to impose his style on a Barça adrift, without a clear identity.
Their best players – Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi – are all past 30, and the recruits brought in to play with them haven’t met their standard.
Antoine Griezmann has looked a shadow of the player that starred for Atlético Madrid and the French national team, while Frenkie de Jong has been struggling with his fitness since the restart. Having said all these, one need not look further than Barca’s final-day 5-0 rout at Deportivo Alavés to understand the threat this group of players still carries.
Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig are two youngsters who have really shone despite a collective drop-off in form, and play with a reckless abandon that belies their more jaded companions. Suárez still has that assassin’s touch and Messi is still the best player in the world, having led La Liga with 25 goals and 21 assists this season. Napoli should go into their tie with Barça unafraid of their illustrious opponents, but they would be foolish to discredit them.
Barcelona’s Frenkie De Jong, speaking to BarcaTV+, believes the Napoli game will not be easy, adding that Los Cules would miss Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets.
“All the remaining teams in the Champions League are big and tough. You are just four wins away from the trophy; you can look at it that way, but this format also accommodates more upsets from underdogs,” De Jong said. “We will miss Vidal and Busquets. They are important players for the team.
“No. Well, of course, there is some level of pressure when you play for Barcelona, but I don’t feel nervous during games.”