Napoli Champions League clash with Barca is a tale of two basket cases

Napoli’s Champions League clash with Barcelona is a tale of two basket cases… the erratic Italians have recovered from civil war, while the Catalans want to avenge haunting exits to Roma and Liverpool

  • Napoli have won eight and lost five during Gennaro Gattuso’s reign as manager
  • They have claimed some big scalps in that time but Barcelona looks a step too far
  • Barca have had an up-and-down season and sacked manager Ernesto Valverde 
  • But after Lionel Messi scored four on Saturday, they look to be back to their best 

This season, they’ve beaten Liverpool. In the last month, they’ve beaten Juventus and Inter Milan. Next up, they’ve got Barcelona and if they weren’t Napoli, Lionel Messi and Co might be a bit more worried about being knocked out of the Champions League.  

It has been an extraordinary season so far at the formidable Stadio San Paolo stadium, the venue of the first leg between the two sides on Tuesday night. 

Where do you start? Yes, Napoli inflicted a rare defeat upon Liverpool in September in a Champions League group match with two goals in the last 10 minutes capping an assured display by Carlo Ancelotti’s side. The victory was absolutely deserved. But their league form was stuttering and things came to the boil in early November.

Napoli – led by Gennaro Gattuso – have had a topsy-turvy season but have won some big games

Earlier this season, under Carlo Ancelotti, Napoli beat Liverpool 2-0 in the Champions League

But the season descended and, amid club in-fighting, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked in December

Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli’s outspoken president, ordered the squad on a week-long training camp after drifting 11 points behind Juventus in Serie A. Ancelotti and his players refused, plunging the club into a civil war.

A month later, about three hours after a resounding 4-0 win over Genk to book Napoli’s place in the last-16 of the Champions League, Ancelotti was sacked. And who did they bring in to steady the ship for the rest of the season? None other than Gennaro Gattuso.

Gattuso the player, a free-hand blend of fire, fury and hostility, would have been ready made for a club like Napoli but his record as a manager did little to warrant succeeding Ancelotti – a three-time Champions League winner who even managed Gattuso while at AC Milan.

And yet here he is. Napoli are nine points off the top four and a place in next season’s Champions League appears unlikely. Of course, it is unfair to attribute all that to Gattuso but Napoli have been just as topsy-turvy with him in charge.

Outspoken president Aurelio De Laurentiis (third left) pictured with Gattuso in December

Napoli have now won five in six and Dries Mertens (right) is a goal away from a club record 

In his 13 games since taking over on December 11, Gattuso is yet to draw. He has won eight and lost five and at one point, the club sank down to 13th. Since then, they beat Juventus 2-1 in late January and beat Inter Milan 1-0 at the San Siro soon after in the semi-final of the Coppa Italia. 

Gattuso’s objective, he admitted himself, is to return Napoli to the top four but there is almost definitely too much ground to make up. If he is to convince Di Laurentiis he deserves the job beyond the end of the season, he needs a landmark achievement.

Coppa Italia success could be enough and eliminating Barcelona from the Champions League would certainly galvanise his chances. There is an argument for that not being as wild a suggestion as it sounds.

Five wins from the last six mean confidence is growing, while striker Dries Mertens is just one goal from becoming the club’s highest ever scorer and key men such as midfielder Fabian Ruiz, who has two goals in his last three games and has been linked with a move to Barcelona, is coming into form at the right time.

But Barcelona can say the same thing, especially after Lionel Messi snapped a four-game goal drought with four goals in their win over Eibar at the weekend. 

Lionel Messi is back in top form for Barcelona after scoring four goals at the weekend

One of Messi’s strikes against Eibar was assisted by new signing Martin Braithwaite 

Like Napoli, Barcelona dismissed their decorated manager in mid-season when Ernesto Valverde was axed in January after defeat in Spain’s reformatted Super Cup semi-final. 

Quique Setien, his replacement, has seven wins and two losses in his first nine games and like Gattuso, is yet to draw with his new team.

They are now two points ahead of Real Madrid at the summit of LaLiga after Real’s shock defeat by Levante – something that may feel as much of a boost to the team as Messi’s ominous return to form. 

One of his four goals at the weekend was set up by debutant Martin Braithwaite and the manner of the victory sharpens the morale of a squad who are on a mission in the tournament to avenge the manner of their last two exits.

Last season, they surrendered a 3-0 lead against eventual winners Liverpool in the semi-final stage and the year before, they couldn’t hold on in the quarter-finals  against Roma, despite winning the first leg 4-1.

Like Napoli, Barcelona have changed bosses with Quique Setien replacing Ernesto Valverde

Barcelona are looking to avenge Champions League collapses against Roma and Liverpool

Advancing against Napoli would not banish those memories – only tournament victory will suffice but it will be a focused Barcelona side that Gattuso’s men will encounter on Tuesday night. 

Napoli prepared for Barcelona with a 2-1 win over Brescia on Friday and afterwards, Gattuso spoke respectfully of the Spaniards but insisted he had a plan.

‘Barcelona are a great team, who could put us in trouble,’ he said. ‘We have to prepare the match well and we’ll play our cards.’

Share this article

Source: Read Full Article