Barcelona and Napoli was the most anticipated tie in the Europa League Playoffs and the first leg delivered the good as the two sides played a thrilling match that ended in a 1-1 draw but deserved a much bigger scoreline. Barça were excellent throughout the night and created a whole lot of chances to win the game comfortably, but could only convert a second-half penalty to equalize after going behind in the first period. The tie is wide open ahead of next week’s second leg in Naples, and Barça will travel to Italy knowing they could have already wrapped up a place in the Round of 16.
Barça played a very good first half, dominating possession and Napoli territory and constantly creating chances with some very good movement by the front players. Ferran Torres, Pedri and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang proved to be constant threats on the left side, and Adama Traoré was dangerous every time he had the ball.
Pedri came very close with a powerful strike, Nico González forced a good save from Alex Meret, and Ferran missed a one-on-one with the keeper in the first 30 minutes. Barça couldn’t score, and paid for it with their only defensive lapse of the half: Elif Elmas found Piotr Zielinski all alone inside the box, and the Polish midfielder was the quickest to react to a Marc-André ter Stegen save on his first attempt and found the back of the net to put the Italians ahead.
Barça responded well to going behind and continued to find spaces inside the Napoli defense, and Ferran came close again with a header than went just wide of the mark. At halftime, Barça were behind but didn’t deserve to be and had a real shot to make a comeback if their finishing improved in the second half.
Barça started the second half well, pressing even higher up the pitch and continuing to attack with intensity and creativity, and Adama was even more involved in the actions. And it was Traoré who gave Barça a golden chance to equalize when his cross hit Juan Jesus’ left hand inside the box to give the Blaugrana a penalty.
Ferran stepped up and showed great composure to sit the keeper down and pass the ball to the back of the net. The score was 1-1 and there were 30 minutes left for Barça to find a winner, and Xavi brought Sergio Busquets, Gavi and Ousmane Dembélé off the bench to offer a spark to the attack.
Napoli did a good job for most of the final half-hour of slowing down the pace of the game with some old-fashioned timewasting and smart fouls. Barça kept possession and tried to show patience to find spaces inside the Napoli backline, and Luuk De Jong came on with five minutes to go looking to score another late goal.
Barça created three great chances in the final minutes: the first came when Dembélé went on a brilliant solo run and the ball eventually fell to Ferran, who had all of the time in the world and tried to find the top corner but missed the target completely; the second fell to Big Luuk who almost score a spectacular bicycle kick, but his effort went just wide. The last one was the best: Luuk made a brilliant pass to find Ferran in perfect position inside the box to bury the ball into the back of the net, but Torres once again sent the ball into the stands.
Napoli managed to survive injury time and the final whistle came to end the game in a draw. Barça played a brilliant game from start to finish, and maybe the tie would already be over if Ferran Torres had a better night in front of goal. But the performance was amazing, and they will go through if they have another game like that in Naples next week with better finishing. Encouraging stuff.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Mingueza (Dest 81’), Piqué, Eric, Alba; Nico (Gavi 65’), F. De Jong (Busquets 65’), Pedri; Adama (Dembélé 65’), Aubameyang (L. De Jong 85’), Ferran
Goal: Ferran (pen 59’)
Napoli: Meret; Di Lorenzo, Rrahmani, Koulibaly, Jesus; Anguissa (Malcuit 84’), Fabián; Elmas (Rui 84’), Zielinski (Demme 80’), Insigne (Ounas 72’); Osimhen (Mertens 80’)
Goal: Zielinski (29’)