Over four months on from Barcelona’s first-leg draw with Napoli in the Champions League Round of 16, the second leg will be played on Saturday at Camp Nou. A lot has happened during that time. Barcelona lost the Spanish title to Real Madrid by a margin of five points, while Napoli won their first major honour in six years.
The Neapolitans were in fine form prior to lockdown and carried on in very much the same fashion to beat Juventus (on penalties) in the Coppa Italia Final, winning a competition they hadn’t enjoyed since Rafa Benitez’s tenure at the San Paolo in 2014. This provided them with the momentum to continue their excellent league form post-lockdown, winning four out of their first five games back. That tailed off a bit once it became evident they couldn’t break back into the top four and already had a Europa League spot guaranteed by their Coppa triumph.
Overall, their league form has been solid – without grabbing any headlines – since the restart in late June. Napoli’s record of seven wins, two draws and three losses in 12 games slightly betrays how average some of their performances have been. Indeed, Napoli have failed to win a game by more than a two-goal margin during this period, in spite of the somewhat kind run of fixtures they were given.
This speaks more to the fact that Napoli aren’t the same side they were under Maurizio Sarri and even in Carlo Ancelotti’s first season. They’re not as ruthless or convincing as they used to be and their ageing side has gone somewhat stale. This becomes more apparent when you consider the games Napoli have failed to win: losses to Inter and Atalanta – in addition to their home draw with Milan – are signs that they have a harder time beating clubs of a similar or superior level to them.
In addition, their victories against Roma and Lazio seem less impressive when you consider that Roma had lost two successive games beforehand and that Lazio have been dreadful since the restart. Nevertheless, they head into Saturday’s Champions League clash with a run of three wins in five games, which suggests that the squad is in a good place confidence-wise.
They’ll also feel optimistic considering that they’re unbeaten in Europe this season, which is a fact that Gennaro Gattuso will surely drill into them. This includes their win over Premier League champions Liverpool in the group stages, and, of course, their draw against Barcelona back in February.
The 4-3-3 formation is locked down, but much depends on whether captain Lorenzo Insigne recovers in time from a groin injury. He was distraught after sustaining it during the closing minutes of the final Serie A game of the season, knowing immediately that his put his Camp Nou participation at risk. If he doesn’t make it, then Hirving Lozano or Matteo Politano will step in, but they are nowhere near the same quality or form.
Arkadiusz Milik is practically a pariah after refusing to sign a new contract, so he is on the market and will at an absolute best be on the bench in Barcelona. Dries Mertens can be expected to lead the way, with a choice between more creative Stanislav Lobotka or rugged Diego Demme in midfield.
Napoli aren’t the only Italians taking on Spanish clubs, as the Europa League Round of 16 becomes a one-off fixture in Germany for Inter-Getafe and Roma-Sevilla. Both Serie A sides have been in good form over the last few weeks and eyeing up this tournament with confidence. The Giallorossi have been almost unstoppable since switching to a 3-4-2-1 formation, but Chris Smalling has already left the squad after Manchester United refused to extend his loan, while Jordan Veretout is suspended and also needs replacing.
Inter are, as always, in the midst of turmoil. Antonio Conte amassed as many points as Jose Mourinho in the Treble-winning campaign but vented his anger at the club hierarchy and their ‘zero protection’ given to him or his players from media attacks. It’s not clear if this will be Conte’s last hurrah on the Nerazzurri bench or his opportunity to gain more decision-making power now that he is in a position of strength. It wouldn’t be Inter would some sort of controversy.