In a repeat of last season, Barcelona found themselves in what was a particularly challenging Champions League group. Among their rivals were Serie A giants Inter Milan, Bundesliga title contenders Dortmund and minnows Slavia Prague. As has become expected, the Blaugranes proved themselves to be too mighty for their opponents, impressively topping the group with 14 points while remaining undefeated. Tonight, Barca are at Serie A side Napoli, who may be struggling domestically but have nevertheless proven clinical in their Champions League outings. Are the Blaugranes walking into this fixture as clear favorites, or should they be wary of the potential dangers posed by this unpredictable Napoli side?
For a better understanding of Napoli’s current form, it will be necessary to look at their most recent Serie A performances. While they may be sitting in sixth place, Gennaro Gattuso’ side have delivered some strong performances in recent times, thereby proving that their slump is well and truly a thing of the past. Their last five league outings have resulted in four wins and just one loss. Among these wins was an emphatic 2-1 victory over league leaders and reigning champions Juventus.
The Napoli attack has been lethal up front, with 11 goals scored in their last five league games. Center forward Arkadiusz Milik has proven decent up front, with two goals in his last five league appearances, as has fellow striker Dries Mertens, who has also bagged two goals while grabbing one assist. Winger Lorenzo Insigne has also enjoyed a return to form with two goals and an assist in his last five Serie A games.
Defensively, Napoli have not fared as well. They have conceded seven goals in their last five matches, while only managing to keep a single clean sheet. Clearly, their ability to score more goals is what has allowed them to rack up the points as of late. Of course, it is insufficient to only look towards their league performances as indicators of their Champions League potential.
Before jumping into their Champions League form, it is worthwhile to acknowledge their so far impressive Coppa Italia campaign. In the quarter-finals, Napoli were pitted against Lazio, the side placed second in Serie A. This tight game ended in a 1-0 win for Napoli, who exhibited their determination and grit by preventing Lazio from even registering on the scoreboard. While they are set to face Inter Milan in the second leg of the semi-finals, they go into the clash with a significant advantage, having grabbed a valuable 1-0 triumph at the San Siro. This away win came in spite of only managing 43% possession and six shots in total.
Moving onto their Champions League campaign and Napoli have proven that they have the potential to take on the best that Europe has to offer. In Group E, Napoli found themselves pitted against reigning Champions League title holders Liverpool, who have thus far dominated the Premier League. Despite having an overwhelming hill to climb, Napoli were able to defeat the Reds 2-0 at home, with late goals from Mertens and Fernando Llorente sealing the deal. Napoli also deserve some praise for their away fixture against Liverpool, whereby they were able to hold the Reds to a 1-1 draw at Anfield (despite having a mere 28% possession). Napoli has thereby achieved a feat that no Premier League side has managed so far this season- namely preventing the Reds from earning all three points at Anfield.
As one can see from the above information, Napoli’s underwhelming points tally in Serie A is far from the whole story. This is a side that has proven that they have the ability to take on any Champions League giant provided they can find their feet on the day. Of course, the Blaugranes have also enjoyed some impressive wins this season, with two victories over Inter Milan, a 3-1 win over Dortmund and an impressive 1-0 away win at Atletico Madrid in La Liga. While an energized performance can be expected from Barca, Napoli are far from underdogs, particularly in their own backyard. Expect an all out war in the Stadio San Paolo this evening.