FC Barcelona slumped to a 1-0 defeat in Geneva in their third fixture of their preseason campaign, as a second-half strike from Swiss midfielder and substitute, Blerim Dzemaili was enough to secure a victory for SSC Napoli. Despite the scoreline, the Blaugrana were arguably the stronger side on the night, but were wasteful in front of goal and a moment of madness from Cladio Bravo was ultimately all Rafa Benitez’ side needed, and Barça will go home empty-handed.
Luis Enrique made four changes to the team that started on Saturday against OGC Nice, as Marc-André ter Stegen, Jeremy Mathieu, Sergi Roberto and Adama Traore dropped out of the starting XI with Claudio Bravo, Marc Bartra, Ivan Rakitić and Munir el Haddadi their replacements. With Napoli fielding a strong line-up, would Claudio Bravo be tested on his Blaugrana debut? Would Ivan Rakitić be able to step up in Xavi’s absence and demonstrate the abilities that prompted Andoni Zubizarreta to spend €18 million to secure his signature? Only time would tell.
Fitting of a match that we could well see in the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, we were treated to a somewhat cagey start at the Stade de Geneve, with both sides making early mistakes. However, for a change, the most noteworthy of these mistakes were made by the opposition as a wayward pass in the defensive third from Christian Maggio nearly sent the Blaugrana through on goal, but Pedro’s hesitance in the final third ultimately cost Barça a golden chance amidst half-hearted penalty claims for handball.
The mistake served as a wake-up call for the Italians; their focus immediately improved and the Partenopei proceeded to threaten the Barça defense. Admittedly, they were still struggling to maintain any decent spell of pressure on the Barcelona backline, but in flashes, they looked dangerous and very nearly took the lead courtesy of Marek Hamsik. Certainly, it would have been an unusual goal, but as the Slovakian midfielder headed the ball goalwards from the edge of the area, it looked as though he would find the back of the net until Claudio Bravo leapt to his left and parried the ball round the post for a corner.
It was an incredible save, and some way for Claudio Bravo to mark his debut with the Blaugrana.
Despite their dominance in possession, Barça weren’t creating much in the way of chances. Occasional moments here and there threatened to yield something more, but always the same: either a last-ditch challenge or interception from the Napoli defense, or a shot from long-range – often blocked for good measure. As a consequence, Barcelona won a number of corner kicks to be taken by Ivan Rakitić, but the Croatian midfielder alone cannot transform this outfit into a dangerous team from set-pieces.
However, while Rakitić couldn’t impact Barça’s set-pieces, he was dominating the midfield and his vision was creating chances from open play. Bearing down on the Napoli defense, Rakitić kept his head up and saw the run of Munir, picking out the talented forward with a superb through pass. Credit to Rafael, the Napoli keeper, for quickly moving from his line, closing down the angle and stopping Munir’s effort. It was arguably the best chance of the match so far and thanks to his good work, the two sides remained level.
A similar chance presented itself to Munir just moments later, this time as the result of Rafinha’s superb slide-rule pass but again, Rafael was quick off his line to smother Munir’s shot.
At the other end of the field, Napoli simply couldn’t get anything going, and that’s thanks to an imperious performance from Marc Bartra. Despite signing Jeremy Mathieu, Barça remained linked with just about every centre-back in existence, and it’s difficult to see why they are persistent on signing yet another defender given Bartra’s rise and rise. At least, it’s difficult to see what Thomas Vermaelen for example will bring to the table that Bartra does not. Nevertheless, that’s a story for another day – with the two sides very much cancelling each other out, it came as no huge surprise that Barça and Napoli entered the half-time break deadlocked at 0-0.
Given the strength of the Napoli line-up and the relative inexperience of the Barça bench, Luis Enrique opted to keep the faith with his starters for the second-half and it nearly paid dividends early, as Pedro rippled the side-netting with a well-struck shot just minutes into the second-half. Unlike the previous two friendlies, it was obvious that Barça were in something of a rhythm – it might not have been a vintage performance, but it was encouraging and just moments after his first effort hit the side-netting, Pedro was at it again.
This time, Jordi Alba provided the assist with an intelligent cutback that enabled Pedro to take the ball in his stride and shoot at goal, but once again, the ball ended up in the side-netting. Rafinha was next to get in on the action, testing Rafael from long-range as Barça pressed forward in search of that elusive opener.
Keen to continue the script, Pedro again found the side-netting with his next shot – a vicious effort from just outside the box – and having seen his side come close one too many times, Lucho finally turned to his bench in an attempt to secure the win.
Out went Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Gerard Piqué, Andrés Iniesta, Ivan Rakitić and Munir, and in came Sergi Samper, Alejandro Grimaldo, Edgar Ie, Sergi Robero, Alen Halilovic and Sandro. Perhaps not the strongest set of substitutes, but certainly a talented bunch, eager to prove their worth to the new manager. As expected, Halilovic was the brightest of the bunch, while Pedro continued to provide the spark as one of the remaining starters.
More chances followed, but nothing of note. Good spells of play may have promised much, but often the final pass was lacking. Gerard Deulofeu, Adama Traore and Frank Bagnack were readied and brought on for the final 15 minutes for Pedro, Rafinha and Bartra respectively with the score still tied at 0-0.
The only trouble was, as much as Barça focused on their attack, they still needed to pay attention at the back – especially Claudio Bravo, who twice came close to "doing a Pinto" with some unnecessarily pauses before his clearances, and on the latter occasion that pause came back to bite him, as his rushed clearance landed right at the feet of Blerim Dzemaili. The Swiss midfielder paused, lined up his shot and let rip with a sensational swerving effort, and despite his best efforts, Bravo couldn’t keep the shot out, spilling the powerful effort into the back of the net.
A touch of fortune? Perhaps, but it was a cracking effort from Dzemaili and Barça were behind.
As the only senior player left in the attacking line-up, the side turned to Gerard Deulofeu for inspiration and the Catalan very nearly delivered with an effort for long-range, but ultimately the Blaugrana’s fate had been sealed. Three games played: one win, one draw and now one defeat. The positives? Well, this defeat arguably came after our best performance of preseason so far, and with the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to join the club, we can only improve.
Next up, FC Barcelona travel to Finland where they will take on HJK Helsinki on Saturday. Until then, Visca el Barça!
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