Three major takeaways from Barcelona 1-1 Napoli
Camp Nou hosted a Europa League game for the first time in close to two decades on Thursday. Without a doubt, Xavi’s men would have been much happier off with a Champions League clash to play this week. However, their elimination in the group stage leaves them with only one option — to fight for silverware in the second-tier European competition.
Pitted against Napoli in their first game of the tournament, Barcelona had their task cut out for them. As was widely expected, the clash between the two European giants lived up to its billing with end to end action.
The Catalans managed a 1-1 draw on the night after conceding an opener against the run of play. While there were considerable signs of improvement in midfield and attack, it exposed their finishing problems. But what were the other talking points after the game?
1. The lineup shuffle
It is a rare sight to witness Barcelona head into a European clash without their veteran players. The likes of Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba have been an indispensable part of the Catalan setup in big games. Yet, it has often been their ageing legs that end up costing the team on the field.
Against Napoli, Xavi showed the world that he has no favouritism. The manager benched Busquets and Gavi for the first time under his tenure and opted to give Nico Gonzalez a start instead.
The novel midfield was a combination of Nico, Frenkie de Jong, and Pedri. De Jong covered for the Barcelona captain and operated as the pivot. Yet, the structure did not seem rigid.
For the most part, de Jong held the fortress as the deep playmaker. On certain occasions when he dropped into the backline or drifted into an advanced position, Nico took over the duties by dropping deep. Though there is tremendous scope to improve, it was a game that showed that Busquets can be replaced with the options in hand.
Amongst other changes in the lineup, Xavi opted to play Oscar Mingueza over Sergino Dest in what was a surprising decision. The La Masia defender lacked the cutting edge that Dest possesses, but his ability to pick out the right passes and exchanges was invaluable.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was given his full debut on the night and started as the centre-forward. He combined well with the midfield, taking the right decisions and picking out the right runs. Despite not getting on the scoresheet, he gave a glimpse of what he can provide to Xavi’s setup.
2. The good and the bad of Ferran Torres
When Barcelona needed someone to step up and convert the penalty on the night, Ferran Torres raised his hand. His simple run up, and flawless execution made the goal look easy. However, the winger did not have a great game in front of the goal apart from his spot-kick.
Out of eight shots attempted by the former Manchester City man, seven efforts did not even hit the target. This included at least three rather high-xG chances.
After the game, the winger was seen in tears for the chances he missed. While it is easy to criticize Torres for not converting those shots, there is a silver lining to the cloud.
Over the years, several strikers have made the move to Barcelona, aspiring to be the next Samuel Eto’o. Only a select few like Luis Suarez went on to create a legacy at the club.
The ability to understand positioning and the art of making well-timed runs is a crucial factor to succeed as a Barcelona striker. In his performance against Napoli, Torres demonstrated that he possesses the necessary guile to become a superstar.
Finishing can be taught, but an intricate understanding of off-the-ball movement is hard to come by. The sheer fact that he managed eight shots from good positions is a testament to his abilities. With a little more time and experience under his belt, the Spaniard can develop into a lethal forward.
3. An uphill battle at Naples
A repeated feature of Barcelona’s past four seasons has been their poor performance away from home in big games. The Catalans have let even the biggest of leads slip away easily at opposition stadiums. Given that the Spanish side must travel to Naples for the second leg, it was hoped that they could pull off a win on Thursday.
A stalemate is a good result for Spalletti’s side, for they have the fan’s backing in the second leg.
Notably, the away goals rule has been scrapped from this season. Any goals Barcelona score at the Diego Maradona stadium will not add any extra weight to the scoreline because of the venue. The added handicap increases the pressure on Xavi’s shoulders.
The second leg is only a week away, and a critical clash against Valencia is scheduled for the weekend. It remains to be seen if the young core of the team can put an end to
Barcelona’s away curse. Yet, one can be confident that this Barcelona will give Napoli a run for their money next week.