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Three talking points ahead of Napoli vs Barcelona | UEFA Champions League

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Photo by TOM GOYVAERTS/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

It was exactly two years ago that Barcelona last played against Napoli at the famed Diego Armando Maradona Stadium. A complete rout and 90 minutes later, the visitors took home a 4-2 win and progressed to the next round of the UEFA Europa League.

A lot has changed since then. Six of the players who started on the night are no longer at the club. Staggeringly, nine of the ten players who started on the bench that night are no longer at the club and the tenth, Gavi, will also be unavailable tomorrow.

It just goes to show the extent to which the scenery in Barcelona has changed in a matter of 700 days. The team is now brimming with La Masia talents with just the right amount of experience in the form of veterans. While still dysfunctional, the team is capable of great things over the course of time.

On Wednesday, the two reigning league champions lock horns once more in Naples in the first leg of the Round of 16 of the UCL. Barcelona enter the clash riding on a high after a last-minute win over Celta Vigo and will hope to secure an away win and an advantage heading back to Montjuic.

Barça Universal brings you three talking points ahead of the UCL showdown.

The knockouts, at last

Barcelona and the UEFA Champions League have not gone hand-in-hand in recent years. The Catalans, who had established themselves as mainstays in the competition for years, took a big slump in the recently concluded editions, failing to make the knockout stages as such.

The last time the Blaugranas made it to the knockout stages of the event, Lionel Messi still led the charge for the side. They advanced to the Round of 16 where they were drawn up against Paris Saint-Germain in the 2020-21 season. A 4-1 defeat at Parc des Princes and a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou over the two legs, however, resulted in their elimination.

Many took the result with a pinch of salt, stating that Barcelona were underperforming for the squad they held and their reputation in the world of football. Little did they know that it was only the tip of the iceberg.

Barcelona’s fall in Europe continued in the 2021-22 campaign where they were drawn alongside Bayern Munich, Benfica, and Dynamo Kyiv in Group E. Their campaign in Europe began disastrously with two successive 3-0 hammerings to Bayern and Benfica in the opening two match days.

Two wins, a draw and a defeat in their next four games, however, sealed their fate and relegated them to the lower division of the competition.

For Barcelona to be knocked out in the group stages was shocking and took over media headlines across the globe. Yet, the deepest of the abyss was to come. In the 2022-23 campaign, the team suffered the same fate.

Drawn into the group of death with Bayern and Inter Milan, the Catalans once again managed to win just two of their six group-stage fixtures. They finished third in the group and tasted the Europa League for the second season in a row.

For Barcelona to return to the Champions League knockouts this season, thus, is a big step forward in itself. As trivial as it sounds, the mere fact that the team is up there competing with the elite as opposed to the Europa League is a reason to rejoice ahead of the clash against Napoli.

Two sides in turmoil

Napoli have a new manager in charge. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images)

The spotlight, after commending Barcelona’s presence in the knockouts, moves to the fixture that lies ahead and the realistic chances that Barcelona have of advancing. After all, the team has not moved past the Round of 16 since the 2019-20 season when they suffered the humiliation in Lisbon.

This time around, the men in garnet-and-blue are up against Napoli, the same opposition they overcame in the Round of 16 of the 2019-20 campaign. While the clash between the reigning La Liga and Serie A champions should attract more hype on paper, both teams have been in turmoil this season.

Barcelona’s lacklustre displays this season are concerning, but it is safe to say that Napoli are in a trough deeper than that of Xavi’s men. The Italian champions have already sacked two managers this season, and tomorrow’s game will in fact be their first under the third manager of the season.

24 games into the Serie A campaign, the defending champions sit ninth on the table with just 10 wins in 24 games. They have been lacklustre all over the field, struggling especially in the final third and with creative input.

Napoli have won just three of their last 11 games across all competitions, and it is safe to say that Barcelona will fancy their chances for advancing if they secure a good result tomorrow. In a battle between two teams in jeopardy, Barcelona may just edge being the less affected party.

The one hope

There are over five months remaining in the ongoing 2023-24 season. Yet, Barcelona already find themselves with very little to fight for.

The Supercopa de Espana and Copa del Rey did not go well for the Azulgranas as they fell short on both fronts. La Liga, meanwhile, appears out of their reach as it stands considering Real Madrid’s eight-point lead at the top.

For all practical purposes, the UEFA Champions League thus remains the Catalans’ prime hope of securing a title this season. While it may appear delusional for one to eye the biggest fish amidst adversity, it is the only competition where they still stand on level ground.

If Xavi is to throw the kitchen sink at one competition for the rest of the campaign, it would thus appear sensible for it to be the UCL. After all, even a deep run into the European competition would leave a good taste for both the fans and the departing manager.

Tomorrow’s clash against Napoli, in many ways, can be seen as the beginning of Barcelona’s new objective for the season. The goal may be difficult but is not impossible if one step is taken at a time.

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