Football Features

“Leo Messi is football’s Atlas” – Winners and Losers as Barcelona beat Napoli to set-up showdown with Bayern

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:32, 8 August 2020 | Updated: 9:49, 30 March 2021

In a tense night of football, Barcelona beat Napoli 3-1 at the Camp Nou to make their 13th straight Champions League quarter-final.

Barça were brilliant first-half but absurdly tepid after the break but Napoli just didn’t have what it took. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Leo Messi

The day after Real Madrid crashed out of the Champions League, Leo Messi was in no mood to have Barcelona join their great rivals on holiday. The Argentine looked in the mood from the start, pressing and passing with ferocious energy and taking Napoli players on for fun.

He watched on delighted as Barcelona scored a goal without him for once, but then he went to work. He walked through three Napoli players, fell on the floor, then somehow took four defenders out of the game whilst sitting on the floor before standing up and slapping the ball home.

It was an absolutely ridiculous goal, the kind of thing only Messi could score. Equally sloppy and sublime, manic and magical. And it had nothing on his second strike as he plucked a gorgeous Frenkie de Jong cross out of sky, controlled it and slapped home. VAR ruled it out, but the goal was unreal and a perfect example of just how above everyone else Messi is.

For what it’s worth, he won Barcelona’s penalty with a fantastic bit of pressing to rob the ball from Kalidou Koulibaly. He took a brutal kick in the process but played on regardless. Had he been joined by attacking partners with a hint of pace in the second-half, then his lovely passes forward could have resulted in goals; but alas he was playing with Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann.

Barcelona consistently ask Leo Messi to perform miracles for the club to pull off even the simplest of victories. Nothing comes easy for the Argentine, he has to be 10/10 every single week or Barça will collapse. And what’s so absurd, what is perhaps the most emphatic sign of his enduring greatness, is that he manages to deliver. Every time. Leo Messi is football’s Atlas, a legendary titan, carrying all of FC Barcelona on his shoulders.

Loser: VAR

Goodness gracious, where to start? First they allowed Barcelona’s opening goal to stand despite the fact that Clement Lenglet clearly pushed his marker to the ground before heading Barça into the lead. That VAR looked at the goal and decided it would be fine was enough of a mistake, but there was so much more to come.

Disallowing Messi’s second goal, a work of art from the Argentine and his Dutch team-mate Frenkie de Jong, for a fractional handball that had little if any impact on the trajectory of the ball was just criminal. VAR then took an age to decide that Koulibaly’s blatant foul on Messi was a penalty, when anyone could have told you it was after a single viewing.

Winner: Clement Lenglet

Barcelona have oft-lamented the decline (due to injury) of Samuel Umtiti, but whilst it has proven a source of frustration for Barça fans, it has not been felt that much on the field thanks to the emergence of Umtiti’s compatriot Clement Lenglet.

Lenglet was signed as a back-up but has handled him so superbly in terms of defending space, defending his man and of course building out from the back that even if Barcelona do sign Eric Garcia from Manchester City this summer, the youngster would face a genuine fight to even get into the team.

Tonight Lenglet was not only supreme at the back, but he opened the scoring by delivering that most rare of things: a Barcelona header from a corner. The Frenchman admittedly pushed his defender over, but after he did that to get the space his header back across goal was superb.

Loser: Kalidou Koulibaly

For years now, people have been linking Kalidou Koulibaly with a move away from Napoli. The fees quoted are almost exorbitant, the kind that would make even Liverpool’s purchase of Virgil van Dijk look frugal. Yet it always seemed worth it because Koulibaly was so dominant.

Well, at the Camp Nou he may have done his suitors a favour with a display so poor it’s bound to knock at least 10 million off his transfer fee. Alright he was fouled by Lenglet for Barcelona’s opener but his failure to stop Messi’s goals, including the one that VAR bailed him out on, was shocking and the way Messi caught him napping on the ball, forcing the defender to concede a penalty, showed that there is a glaring weakness in possession that could be exploited at the elite level.

Winner: Frenkie de Jong

When Barcelona signed Frenkie de Jong, the world expected fireworks. After all this was the kid who dominated with Ajax, being their key player as they fought their way to the semi-finals last year. But his time in Catalunya has’t been as fluid, injury has played its past but tactics, too, have been a problem for the Dutch midfielder.

Tonight, however, for perhaps the first time in the Blaugrana shirt; Frenkie de Jong excelled. He was comfortably the second-best player on the park after Messi and delivered a midfield masterclass. De Jong evaded the Napoli press, constantly threading passing through the lines to forwards in better positions, and ran with the ball so fluidly.

Frenkie’s display truly signifies his arrival in a Barcelona shirt, which will give them more of a chance against Bayern Munich and bodes very well for next season. And this despite his greatest moment, a supreme outside of the foot cross to Messi for the Argentine’s second goal, was cruelly ruled out by VAR. But not even nonsense handballs can dull Frenkie de Jong’s shine.

Loser: Quique Setién

Obviously Quique Setién’s Barcelona winning should make it hard for the coach to be classed as a loser, but if anyone actually watched the match it was pretty obvious that Setién dropped pretty much all the balls in this one and got bailed out by the individual genius of Leo Messi.

The line-up itself was strange, with the omission of the in-form Riqui Puig in midfield a strange decision that was always going to hamper Barcelona’s ability to pass the ball (which, hey, it did!) but worse was his lack of action from the sidelines.

With his ageing attack completely lacking the pace to punish Napoli in behind as they pushed up (shades of Roma), Quique Setién didn’t turn to Ansu Fati to add some pace and dynamism in attack. Even as Luis Suárez repeatedly killed attacks with his lack of movement or Antoine Griezmann consistently slowed the play down with his every touch, Setién didn’t budge. The way the energy slowly drained out of Barcelona as the second-half ticked on was painful to watch. Setién just kept on chatting to assistant Eder Sarabia, talking instead of doing.

Suárez played 92 minutes, Griezmann 84; Ansu and Riqui Puig never even saw the pitch as Setién made just two changes. That Ivan Rakitic’s disasterclass in the middle of the park didn’t see Riqui Puig enter the field was genuinely baffling and that it didn’t cost the Blaugrana was solely down to Napoli’s inability to hurt their hosts.

A better side, like their next opponents Bayern Munich, have no such problem with punishing sloppy defending. The Bavarians will pounce on the kind of opportunities that Barcelona presented to Napoli, and if Setién is as cowardly in his team-selection and passive with his substitutions as he was at the Camp Nou then we could be heading for a repeat of the 7-0 thrashing from the 2013 semi-final. In one game. And you would have to lay it directly at the feet of Quique Setién; saviour turned saboteur.