Barcelona and Napoli fought for 90-plus minutes, almost literally, for a 1-1 draw at the San Paolo in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie. Barça were awful in the first half and just about okay in the second, and Quique Setién had a poor coaching performance in his Champions League debut.
Quique Setién coached the first Champions League game of his career, and maybe the occasion got to him: the Barça manager returned to the 3-5-2 formation he used in his first three games but quickly abandoned for its obvious issues: lethargic possession, lack of movement and zero creativity up front.
So it’s obvious that Barça showed those issues in the first half in Naples, with Arturo Vidal glued to the right wing and Junior Firpo isolated on the left while everyone else was in the middle where Napoli had a very good structure and easily killed any promising attack from the Blaugrana. Lionel Messi struggled to find spaces to work and had zero impact on the match, and Barça were stale and boring with the ball.
Napoli had a clear plan: defend with 11 players behind the ball and counter attack with speed whenever Barça made a mistake: and when Junior Firpo gave a silly ball away at the back, Zielinski found Dries Mertens with a cross and the Belgian curled a beautiful ball into the top corner.
At halftime Barça were playing really bad football, and Napoli had a lead they deserved.
Barça started the second half with both full-backs pushing forward for the first time and quicker passing around the box, which made them more inventive and dangerous. After 10 minutes Barça equalized with a masterful pass from Sergio Busquets to find Nélson Semedo who gave Antoine Griezmann a tap-in, and then the game became fun.
Napoli couldn’t protect the lead anymore and had to go forward, pressing higher up the pitch and forcing Barça to make mistakes at the back. Marc-André ter Stegen made two unbelievable saves to stop Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón, and Barça nearly took the lead after a brilliant run by Messi and a pass from Vidal that the captain couldn’t quite reach. All of that happened in the first 20 minutes of the second half.
The final 20 minutes were almost exclusively played in Napoli’s half: Barça pressed high and the Italians tried to play their way out of trouble, but neither team managed to create a real chance and we saw a lot of running and not a lot of thinking, especially from Barça. Setién made no system or personnel changes, and Barça continued running. Then Arturo Vidal was sent off for a hard foul then a stupid headbutt on Mário Rui, and Barça had to play the final few minutes with just 10 men.
Barça survived the last few moments until the final whistle came to end a hard-fought battle in Naples against a solid Napoli side that gave their all against a Barça team with very few ideas. After a lot of positive steps in the previous games the Blaugrana take one back, and they have El Clásico next. Nervous days ahead.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Piqué (Lenglet 90’+3), Umtiti; Vidal, Rakitic (Arthur 55’), Busquets, De Jong, Firpo; Messi, Griezmann (Ansu Fati 87’)
Goal: Griezmann (57’)
Red Card: Vidal (88’)
Napoli: Ospina; Di Lorenzo, Manolas, Maksimovic, Mário Rui; Fabián, Demme (Allan 79’), Zielinski; Callejón (Politano 73’), Mertens (Milik 53’), Insigne
Goal: Mertens (30’)