Barça’s future in the Champions League was at stake and they were under pressure to fail once again. However, the Catalans dominated the first half and, despite not having a similar second period, they knew how to keep the result to advance to the quarter-finals. Great result, doubtful management. These are five takeaways from the Barcelona 3–1 Napoli.
We all missed the most exciting, challenging and important tournament in all of Europe and it was finally back for Barça. After the first leg of the Champions League last 16 had finished 1–1 in Naples, Barcelona were forced to avoid the failure that their fans were used to seeing year after year. There was a lot of pressure before the game but, at the same time, a lot of faith turned into a great first half for Quique Setién’s team, who scored three goals, or four wasn’t one from Lionel Messi disallowed.
However, in the second half, Napoli began to have more of the ball and Setién made the substitutions too late, not to mention that Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati did not play a single minute. Even so, Barcelona got the ticket to Lisbon to play the quarter-finals against Bayern Munich. After Saturday’s victory, let’s review the five takeaways from the Barcelona 3–1 Napoli.
1. A rested Lionel Messi is on another level
It was painful seeing Lionel Messi underperforming because of fatigue in the final La Liga games. Notwithstanding, when the Argentinian is healthy, there are no words to describe his talent. Several weeks after the end of the Spanish league, La Pulga returned to action for the Champions League against Napoli with a majestic first half.
📊 — Lionel Messi has now scored against 35 different teams in the Champions League. pic.twitter.com/8kD4zx6GeQ— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) August 8, 2020
In the 23rd minute, Leo was in possession of the ball and took on many opposition defenders, making them look like toys and then somehow transforming a shot from an uncomfortable angle into a great goal. Minutes later, Messi received a brilliant pass from Frenkie de Jong which the No 10 received with his chest, brought down and cannoned into the back of the net. Unfortunately and controversially, it was disallowed by VAR for a handball.
Yet instances before the end of the first half, Messi was chasing his prey again, pressing near the opposing area. When he tried to recover the ball, Kalidou Koulibaly accidentally kicked on his foot, leading to a penalty that Luis Suárez converted due to the pain from Messi. From that moment, the little genius was more reserved in his plays, but the magic persisted through all 90 minutes.
2. No Ansu Fati, no Riqui Puig
Without Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal and Arthur Melo in midfield, and Martin Braithwaite and Ousmane Dembélé in attack, not even Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig were given the chance to play against Napoli. It is one thing to not introduce them when the team is already dominating, but the reality is that they were very needed in the second half. Ansu Fati would have been ideal to create and find more spaces, and Puig would have been very useful to provide some much-needed creativity.
“It was important to make this first step. We must take the rest of the games with this same hope. The team played well and deserved the win. We are not good enough to control the entirety of the game. We would like to, but that’s impossible”
Quique Setién only used two substitutions and both came after the 80th minute. If Barcelona want to win this Champions League, the coach will need to trust both youngsters. This does not mean that they should play every minute in every game, but they deserve to be trusted as they will always be ready to do what they do best: cause our jaws to drop. After not having taken part in Barça B’s play-offs for promotion to Segunda, nor having got any minutes last night, will they be used against Bayern Munich?
3. Monchu’s debut
Being honest, no one could have expected Monchu Rodríguez to make his debut against Napoli after not having played a single minute in the final La Liga matches. But after being included in the squad list with other names of the youth teams such as Jandro Orellana and Konrad de la Fuente, the young 20-year-old midfielder Monchu had the hope of finally making his debut.
Above Riqui Puig, the number 42 entered the field in the minute 84 to replace Antoine Griezmann. He played for about ten minutes and it was enough to exhibit his maturity and courage playing against one of the best teams in Italy. He did not have time to have a great involvement, but exhibited confidence and security in the few balls he touched.
A truly deserved debut for Barça B’s captain and top goalscorer despite operating in midfield, and a talent that certainly deserves to be trusted more. Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig started getting few minutes in their opening performances, and now they are players with many more opportunities. This is the first step for Monchu, who debuted in the best possible tournament and waits for many more chances to come.
4. Frenkie de Jong bosses the midfield
Frenkie de Jong played one of his best games as an azulgrana. Without Busquets, it was Iván Rakitić who acted as the pivot or holding midfielder, leaving Frenkie on the left side of the midfield. The Dutchman initiated many plays, moved freely, pushed hard and was always very well positioned. De Jong led the midfield and drove the ball with great confidence and personality. Nobody took the ball away from number 21.
The true Frenkie de Jong was unleashed | Photo by Lluís Gené / AFP via Getty Images
Furthermore, he generate a couple of dangerous chances, and whenever he had the ball the rivals suffered too much to get a touch on it. The 23-year-old knew of the importance of a competition that led to him and his former Ajax being recognised worldwide last season. Young, but mature. New, but experienced. Culés will be longing to see his skills displayed against the best European teams again.
5. Ready for Lisbon?
The first half was more than good enough in spite of the squad limitations and absences, presenting a great improvement in comparison to the final games of La Liga. While the second period was not inspiring at all, Barça have already started preparations for the battle that will take place in Lisbon. Despite not being the main favourites, the Catalans want their sixth UEFA Champions League title. The road will not be easy, but only three games are needed to lift the trophy.
“We are three games away from becoming Champions League winners”
Bayern Munich will be Barcelona’s first rivals in Portugal and, without a doubt, they are one of the strongest candidates to win the European contest. However, anything can happen on the road to glory, and Quique Setién’s men will look to replicate their best minutes against Napoli, and improve the most discouraging ones. Barça need three wins to avoid the season from ending trophyless, and now it is the time to trust them.
Player Ratings: Elche 0-2 Barcelona
With four wins in on the trot in the league, Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona marches on in the hope of overtaking Real Madrid who sit second, three points clear of the Garnet and Blue. Last night’s game against Elche was proof that Barça have what it takes to grind out wins in important games, even if their performance is less than convincing.
A goal each from Frenkie de Jong and Riqui Puig was enough to etch a 0-2 win for the visitors who will now travel to Madrid to lock horns against Rayo Vallecano in the Copa del Rey round of 16. Meanwhile, Barça Universal runs the rule over the Blaugranas.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen: 8
Barcelona’s captain without the armband continues to come up clutch for Barcelona in the six-yard-box, making stellar saves with each passing game. Yesterday, while the German made only two stops, one of them came post the 75th minute in a high-xG 1v1 scenario.
Oscar Mingueza: 7
Starting in unfamiliar territory, Mingueza coped well with the pressure at right-back. He was solid in the first half and did not let anyone go past him. Additionally, he did well in the attack, continuously whipping in crosses, although with little success. Had an error covered up by ter Stegen, but a solid display nonetheless.
Ronald Araujo: 7.5
Words have started to fall short for Araujo, who, yet again, was on his toes, ready to rescue Barcelona with each passing attack. The Uruguayan won three fouls while committing one himself, and lost possession only 4 times.
Samuel Umtiti: 8
Following his display against Granada, Umtiti got a well-deserved start after two weeks, and was pretty much faultless. A bit conservative in possession, the World Cup winner still managed to create one chance. Without the ball, he was a rock, and nobody was able to get past him on the night.
Jordi Alba: 6.5
The run of underwhelming displays continues for Jordi Alba, who ghosted on the night against Elche, especially in the attack. Did well out of possession, though, making two interceptions, one tackle, and a solitary clearance.
Frenkie de Jong: 9
De Jong woke up and chose violence. He started the game in amazing fashion, progressing the ball immaculately. Got a goal for his rewards, and then etched an assist to his name in the last few minutes, as well, with the most perfectly timed run and pass. Continues to be sensational.
Sergio Busquets: 8
Busquets has started to hold his own in the centre of the park in this formation and had another evening where he was nearly back to his best. The Spaniard conducted the midfield with ease, not allowing the Elche midfield to have the sniff of the ball. Additionally, he also managed to create one chance. Picked up a suspension, though, and will miss the outing against Bilbao.
At just 18, Pedri continues to astound the Barcelona fans, four-folding his standards with each passing game. Yesterday, as well, he made four key passes, completed all his dribbles (4/4), and won two set-pieces. Would have been a perfect night had he gotten an assist, only to be denied by his own overhit passes on two occasions.
Ousmane Dembele: 6
The attack was inarguably the most underwhelming part of Barcelona’s game last night, and understandably so, after playing an insane number of minutes in the past week. Dembele tried his best to get past the Elche defence, but with little to no success, as they stood firmly in place. Additionally, he lost possession a bizarre 21 times in just 74 minutes.
Antoine Griezmann: 6
Griezmann played through the centre on the night, as opposed to the left, where he has been deployed of late. Barring a single key pass for Araujo, the Frenchman did not do a lot, either. He made two great runs, but was denied a shot through poor communication between him and Pedri.
Martin Braithwaite: 6
Rounding off the lineup was Martin Braithwaite, starting on the left. Can be given credit for creating the goal through a brilliant cross, but was otherwise slow in possession, and unable to think on his feet.
Fransisco Trincao: 7
Credit where credit is due, this was probably Trincao’s best cameo for Barcelona. Just when it looked like Barcelona were getting hit back, the Portuguese brought freshness to the wing, and even hit two shots on target. Unfortunately for him, Edgar Badia pulled off two superhuman efforts to deny both his chances.
Riqui Puig: 7
The man of the hour!
Ideally, playing just five minutes would not amount to a 7/10 rating, but Puig practically sealed the game for Barcelona in the 89th minute, meeting de Jong’s cross over two defenders, and scoring his first-ever senior goal. A night he will never forget.