On Thursday night, Barcelona will host Napoli in the Europa League Knockout Round Playoffs. It’s admittedly strange to see Barcelona and Europa League in the same sentence, but Europe’s secondary tournament is not bereft of some prestige, or heavyweight challengers.
Napoli, sitting 3rd in Serie A, represent a significant obstacle for the Catalans. A victory in the first leg could go a long way in building confidence and bearing the fruit of Xavi’s appreciable changes.
In anticipation of what should be a riveting encounter, here are three player battles that will dictate Barcelona vs Napoli.
1. Gerard Pique vs Victor Osimhen
There’s no better place to start than by looking at Gerard Pique versus Victor Osimhen, Barça’s key centre-back (for better or for worse), and Napoli’s principal centre-forward.
If the Blaugrana want to get a favourable result, their backline – led by Pique, whose importance is amplified without the services of Ronald Araujo – will have to keep Osimhen at bay. The 35-year old showed in last year’s Copa del Rey final that he can still nullify a dynamic forward in Inaki Williams. But, now he is a year older. Can he do it again?
Despite his careless red card at the weekend against Espanyol, Pique is enjoying a fairly noteworthy campaign. His performances have surged under Xavi’s tutelage, and he will have to be back at his best on Thursday night.
Whether he is partnered with Eric Garcia or if Xavi pulls a wildcard and opts to slot in Frenkie de Jong in a back-three, Pique will likely man-mark Osimhen. With his deteriorated pace, Pique’s ability to stop attacks before they develop has never been more crucial. Still, containing Osimhen is no easy task.
Osimhen is a centre-forward that intimidates defenders in a myriad of ways. Starting with his physical gifts, the Nigerian is one of the fastest players in world football – and at 186 cm (6’1), he represents a threat in the air too. He has a keen eye for goal and loves making runs behind the defence into open space.
Osimhen looks to draw defenders in with small touches, only to pounce past them with a quick burst. He is also fairly creative on the ball in regards to creating a shot for himself.
On the statistic front, he has scored ten goals in 18 appearances this season from an xG of 8.4. He averages 3.69 shots per 90 minutes and 3.18 shot-creating actions.
And on the defensive end, he is equally impressive: the 23-year old is in the 79th percentile in pressures compared to other forwards in Europe’s big five leagues (17.36), and in the 82nd percentile in tackles (1.10).
If he’s fit, expect Osimhen to keep Pique busy for the majority of the proceedings, but if the Spaniard can hold his own, that will go a long way for the Catalans.
2. Sergio Busquets vs Fabian Ruiz
As Barcelona and Napoli both look to keep possession, averaging 63.3% and 60.1% across all competitions, respectively, the midfield battle will be crucial in determining a winner.
Napoli’s creative hub in the middle of the park is Fabian Ruiz, thus his inclusion here. One could have selected Frenkie de Jong or Pedri to fill in this spot for Barcelona, but the Catalans’ key cog has always been Sergio Busquets – and who knows when that will cease to be.
Admittedly, Fabian and Busquets will not be facing off directly, unlike the other matchups in this list. In fact, it will likely be one of de Jong, Gavi, or Pedri confronting Fabian directly as they operate on the same side of the pitch. Nevertheless, this is a battle of two midfield orchestrators. Who will create the better music?
Busquets continues to put in solid performances for Barça week in and week out, and his consistency has underlined the team’s resurgence in recent months. He remains at the centre of everything the club does in defence and attack.
Against Napoli, he will have to be at his press-resistant best versus a side that press with intent. Additionally, the Partenopei are not afraid to hit teams on the break, so proper positioning will be of utmost importance. In the final third, key passes to Adama Traore or Jordi Alba out wide could be the difference-maker.
On the other hand, Fabian will look to break down Barcelona in a similar manner. The Spaniard is one of Napoli’s most important players, ranking sixth in minutes played and first in passes targetted.
He sits on the right of a double pivot or in the number 6 position, dictating the tempo of his team and expertly looking for forwards making runs behind the opposition defence, as evidenced by his 12.7 attempted long-range passes per game.
Busquets and Fabian are both first outlets in the buildup and determine how, where, and when their teams attack. Whoever makes the better decisions can very well win the match for their side.
3. Ferran Torres vs Kalidou Koulibaly
The next key battle turns the tables, pitting Barcelona’s likely number 9, Ferran Torres, against Napoli’s star centre-back, Kalidou Koulibaly. Xavi can choose between Torres, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, or Luuk de Jong upfront, but the ex-Manchester City forward is the likeliest option here, with Gavi and Adama Traore on his left and right, respectively.
Torres will be up against one of the world’s best centre-backs this season in Koulibaly, and his performance will be indicative of his team’s.
It has been a little over a month since Torres made his debut for Barcelona, and suffice to say, he’s had some brilliant performances and others that were inconsequential. His three goal contributions in dive matches is a positive start, although he is still adjusting to life as an out-and-out number 9, where he has featured for the last two matches.
Against Espanyol at the weekend, in particular, he struggled to get involved in buildup or make a significant impact with his shots. Nevertheless, on Thursday, there is more Torres can do to win this key battle than just score. Before that, let’s look at who he’s up against.
As aforementioned, Koulibaly is one of the world’s best centre-backs, and he has held that reputation for a while. The African Cup of Nations winner is a complete defender, elite at tackling, intercepting, positioning, and even ball distribution.
As a commanding physical presence, there aren’t many in world football who can stand toe-to-toe with him, or hold their own.
With Koulibaly’s prowess in mind, how will this key battle play out?
First, Torres will have to work diligently to free himself from the Senegalese defender’s close marking throughout the match. Barcelona will look to send him crosses inside the box, and winning that aerial duel will be brutal, to say the least. Torres must also remain unshaken should Koulibaly tackle him with force.
Elsewhere, the Spaniard will aim to preoccupy Koulibaly to provide space for advancing interiors like Pedri or de Jong, or even Gavi from the left. If he fails to do so, expect the defender to assert himself in the box.
Fortunately, Torres can still win this duel without scoring, he will just have to be concentrated and inviolable.
Football is, of course, a team sport, but that doesn’t mean some matchups aren’t more consequential than others. If Pique, Busquets, and Torres, can rise to the occasion, they can pull off an impressive result.