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Three questions and three answers from Barcelona 3-1 Napoli

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Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images

Barcelona are in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. A wait of four long years came to an end last night when the men in garnet and blue took apart Napoli at home, but it is safe to say that it was far from a simple task.

Francesco Calzona has changed Napoli’s fortunes since his appointment last month, and the game last night is a testament to the same. Barcelona may have got an early two-goal lead, but the Italians fought valiantly until the end of the game and were close to equalising on multiple occasions.

In the end, goals from Fermin Lopez, Joao Cancelo and Robert Lewandowski helped the Catalans secure a 3-1 win (4-2 on aggregate) and advance to the final eight.

Barça Universal brings you three answers and three questions that last night’s clash left fans with.

Three answers

1. How would Xavi compensate for the midfield deficit?

Heading into the knockout clash against Napoli, Xavi was without both Frenkie de Jong and Pedri who made a bigger difference in the first leg. The fact that they are the team’s creators-in-chief made the situation worse for the manager.

In the end, Xavi opted to deploy a pure 4-3-3 with a natural winger on the left flank. Raphinha took the place of the extra-midfielder, reducing the burden on the understaffed department.

Of the three places in midfield, Ilkay Gundogan and Andreas Christensen were bonafide starters and the manager opted to provide young Fermin Lopez with the final place in the department. The youngster’s energetic and proactive display stole the show in the first half, as he scored the team’s opener and constantly generated a threat in Napoli’s box.

2. Youth or experience in central defence?

Pau Cubarsi or Inigo Martinez – that was the question that plagued Xavi heading into last night’s clash. Last time around, he opted for the veteran’s experience only to see him directly err for Napoli’s equaliser, and this time, gave Cubarsi the start.

90 minutes later, the 17-year-old walked home with the man-of-the-match title purely for his defensive exploits and superb positioning. Going up against one of the world’s finest strikers in Victor Osimhen, Cubarsi neatly tucked him in his pocket and virtually took the No. 9 out of the game.

The youngster did indeed make the occasional error. Barring his poor aerial duel with Giovanni Di Lorenzo and the one rough challenge on Osimhen, however, he was flawless at the highest level despite being a mere teenager.

3. Could Sergi Roberto step up?

Captain stepped up. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

If one ever is to understand how a proper captain’s cameo is to appear, Sergi Roberto’s display against Napoli is the game to refer to.

The veteran, freshly recovered from injury, was not fit to start and thus sat on the sidelines through the first half. Xavi called on the captain at the hour mark, and boy did Roberto change the dynamic of the game.

The La Masia graduate oozed class in midfield, not only freeing Gundogan to advance forward but also stepping high himself in attack. His one-touch football changed the tempo of the game and helped the Catalans regain control of possession and dominance.

In addition to three key passes, the captain created the third goal virtually on his own and selflessly gave the ball to Lewandowski for the finish. If his performance last night is anything to go by, we will see a lot more of Roberto in the coming weeks.

Three questions

1. Is Ilkay Gundogan being restricted from the niche he shines in?

Gundogan is right up there as one of the most versatile midfielders in world football. His niche, however, is playing as an attacking midfielder, directly serving balls to the players in attack.

Time and time again this season, the German has single-handedly orchestrated Barcelona’s attack. However, the lack of other midfield options last night forced him into a deeper role where he could not exert his prowess to the greatest effect.

Fast forward to the team substitutions at the hour mark, Gundogan was freed from his shackles. With Roberto and Romeu arriving and willing to put in a shift slightly deeper in midfield, Gundogan began stepping forward and creating chances for fun.

He finished the game with four key passes, two successful dribbles, a shot on target and a well-worked pre-assist for the team’s final goal. The fact that most of his contributions came in the final 30 minutes forces one to think if placing Gundogan high in midfield should be Xavi’s priority.

2. What is wrong with Xavi’s pecking order?

When will Roque get his chance? (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

When Barcelona were beginning to lose steam and led only by one goal, Xavi was prompted to make changes in the final third. With the team’s very participation in the competition at stake and the pressure of the highest order, he once again opted for Joao Felix who has been out of touch.

Yet again last night, the Portuguese forward was far from useful in his cameo. At this point, one is forced to think where Vitor Roque has sinned to not get minutes despite his special performances in the chances he has been given.

Xavi admitted recently that his preference for Felix over Roque was down to the ‘seniority’ in the pecking order. In that case, however, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way he is managing the squad, for Roque’s substitution last night should have been the priority given the situation.

3. How far can Barcelona really go in the UCL?

After four long years, Barcelona have entered the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. The last time they managed the feat, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were all at the club and fell to one of the worst defeats in the history of the club.

Barcelona are in elite company with PSG, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Arsenal while two of Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, PSV and Borussia Dortmund will join them in the bracket.

On one hand, just three ties lie between the Catalans and the pinnacle of football. Progressing in the competition will not be a game of momentum but one of mental fortitude, and how far they proceed will completely depend on their belief in themselves.

The win against Napoli, no doubt, is a massive morale booster for the Catalans. How they utilise the boost to push themselves forward and the draw they receive will account for so much of their chances in the event.

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