Football Features

“They showed nerves of steel in Naples” – Five things learned as 10-man Barcelona draw 1-1 with Napoli

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:28, 25 February 2020

In a game of two-halves, Barcelona and Napoli played out a 1-1 draw in the Stadio San Paolo.

Barcelona dominated possession for the whole game, but where in the first-half you felt Napoli were happy with that situation, after half-time it felt more like Napoli desperately holding onto the result. We head back to Barcelona all-square, but what did we learn?

1. Barcelona will not compromise

Under Ernesto Valverde (and even Luis Enrique, to a degree) Barcelona began compromising on their identity. When they were in troubles scenarios, particularly in Europe, they began doing stupid things. They tried pumping crosses into the box, they passed it to Messi and just stood around waiting for him to create magic out of nowhere, or they just wandered around idle until the game ended.

In Quique Setién’s first-ever game in the Champions League, Barcelona showed the new confidence that he has imbued them with. They will not compromise on their way of playing. They spent the first-half banging their head on Napoli’s brick wall, making 455 passes to the home side’s 195 but only having 2 shots and 0 on target. One would have expected them to change at half-time, but they did not.

Instead of reaching for a dopey Plan B, they simply executed plan A with more authority. They pressed better, they passed faster, and the game flowed much quicker as a result. They completed fewer passes (342 to Napoli’s 197) but had 6 shots, 2 on target, one of which hit the back of the net as they carved the hosts open with surgical precision.

An 11 touch, 10 pass move began with Arturo Vidal winning the ball back and then worked its way through Sergio Busquets, Arthur, Frenkie de Jong, Messi, Vidal again and then back to Busquets who controlled it and then cut Napoli open with a superb pass for the onrushing Nelson Semedo who cut it back and Antoine Griezmann bagged a massive away goal.

It was a sublime goal, a truly gorgeous team effort and the kind of strike you can only pull off if you truly have the confidence of your convictions. Barcelona have re-found their conviction and showed nerves of steel in Naples, and now they have an away goal and will, in three weeks, be even better at executing the coaching concepts that Quique Setién has been frantically trying to impart since getting the job mid-January.

Things are good right now, and they can only get better.

2. Gattuso channels Mourinho

Coming into this game, no one gave Napoli much of a chance to compete with Barcelona, especially without their star defender Kalidou Koulibaly. Gattuso needed a plan and his solution was to reach back 10 years into the Italian football archives and look to José Mourinho’s Inter Milan, the side that stopped Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from winning three straight Champions Leagues.

Napoli were dogged in their defensive application. They parked a fleet of buses in front of their goal, squeezing space like it owed them money. It was a real throwback performance from Napoli, recalling the grit and grind of the Northern Italian sides rather than the poetic attacking play that Napoli had become associated with – but it was deadly effective.

It was notable that when Napoli stepped up to try and play Barcelona at their own game following the Blaugrana’s equaliser that they looked well short of the level they showed when defending.

3. Ter Stegen stands tall

Marc-André Ter Stegen has been having a rough time of tings lately. Heading into Barcelona’s semi-final second-leg at Anfield, the German was the best goalkeeper in the Champions League and arguably the world. Then Liverpool blitzed four goals by him whilst Alisson kept a clean sheet and the tables turned in favour of the Brazilian.

Since then, Ter Stegen has definitely had some impressive performances (away to Borussia Dortmund earlier in the competition was a great example) but mostly he has not looked up to his usual level. For example, the Blaugrana have conceded an incredible 29 goals in La Liga.

But in Naples, Ter Stegen pulled out the kind of big, gutsy stops that marked him out amongst the world’s best goalkeepers. The German made 3 saves in total, all impressive but none moreso than when he raced off his line to block José Callejón from making it 2-1 to Napoli. The chance came soon after Barcelona had equalised and would have squashed their burgeoning momentum but their German goalkeeper bailed him out and allowed Barcelona to head home with the away goal edge.

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4. Mertens suffers for his art

Dries Mertens is a Napoli legend. He came into this game one goal shy of Marek Hamsik’s goalscoring record of 121 and couldn’t have expected to add to that tally. Not only were they playing Barcelona, but they were also in a dogged defensive set-up and he looked set to plough a lone furrow in attack. Like all great artists, he was going to have to suffer.

But then something special happened, the ball broke his way thanks to Piotr Zielinski capitalising on some sloppy defending and he had the ball on the edge of the box. He looked up, took a second, and bent a gorgeous ball around Nelson Semedo and into the back of the net. This was a real work of art, as smooth as a painter’s brush stroke, a strike so sweet that even Marc-André Ter Stegen didn’t even move.

Mertens suffering sadly took the form of an injury he picked up, getting on the rough end of a 50/50 with Sergio Busquets. All artists must suffer for their work, and that was his lot. One only hopes he can recover in time for the second leg, where he can delight us with his art all over again (and then probably suffer again, because he is a true artist).

5. A thin squad gets thinner

Barcelona hold a huge advantage ahead of the second leg in the form of their away goal and their ever-increasing quality under Quique Setién. Recall how putrid they were away from home against Liverpool, Manchester United, Lyon and Roma under Ernesto Valverde – even a 1-1 draw from a bad display would be an improvement on that, but instead they played really well.

But as much as they have the advantage, this game was not without its black marks. First there was Sergio Busquets’ unfortunate yellow card for his 50/50 challenge with Dries Mertens. Busquets and Mertens both went in with gusto and a foul would have been sufficient. Still, a yellow means Busquets will miss the second leg through suspension and given how dominant he was tonight, that could hurt. Busquets had more touches (134), made more passes (121), passes in the opponent’s half (86) and interceptions (6) than anyone on the field. He ran the show, and he won’t be there to do the same thing in the Camp Nou. That’s a problem.

Then there was Arturo Vidal’s idiotic red card for thrusting his head at Mario Rui mere seconds after lunging at him two-footed. That red probably stopped Barcelona truly pushing for a victory and will further limit their midfield options ahead of the second-leg at the Camp Nou.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Gerard Piqué, the lynchpin of their defence, limped off late on after an awkward fall saw him roll over on his ankle. He will now be facing an agonising wait to find out the severity of the injury, hoping he can make El Clásico at the weekend or at least the second-leg in three weeks time.

So yes, Barcelona hold the advantage in theory, but with their squad problems there is still a great chance for Napoli to spring an upset.