Barcelona – Napoli: Partenopei Pale On The Big Stage (3-1)

Barcelona bit back against the critics to stay alive on the continent. But it might have been a different story if the Italians were not in a forgiving mood about the presence of their frailties.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

We decided to make this article free to read. If you want to support our work, consider taking a subscription.

A bruised and battered Barcelona gave up Xavi as a casualty at the end of January. The end is nigh for his reign in the dugout, and their displays have demonstrated why that is the case. Phases of promise remained unfulfilled for the full ninety minutes due to a lack of control and calmness that exemplified the legend’s style during his playing days. Yet, the outfit have still stumbled over the line. Three clean sheets from their last three LaLiga outings have added distance from fourth placed Atlético Madrid.

Napoli’s soul soured before the new year even began. Two individuals tried and failed to lean on the legacy of Luciano Spalletti before Francesco Calzona inherited an institution in tatters. It is a far cry from the runaway Scudetto champions of 2023. His men still sit seventh in the Serie A standings and out of the European places. However, he has not lost any of the six games under his stewardship. A spirited showing in the first leg left the tie on a knife’s edge. Could the club continue the revival?

Calzona led his camp to a 1-1 draw against Torino on Friday. He switched two members of his starting eleven from that stalemate. Amir Rrahmani came in for Leo Østigård in the center of the defense. Piotr Zieliński is not a part of the Champions League squad, so Hamed Traorè stepped into the middle of the park with Stanislav Lobotka and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa. Victor Osimhen, who returned to action in Catalonia to level the score in the first leg, started again as the striker.

Xavi rotated three figures after a slim single goal triumph over Mallorca. Pau Cubarsí played in the middle of the back four with Ronald Araújo, who replaced Iñigo Martínez. Andreas Christensen continued to sit at the base of the midfield. Pedri and Frenkie de Jong were missing with injuries, so Fermín López stepped in for the seniors. Ahead of him was a talismanic presence, closing in on a century of goals in the Champions League. Robert Lewandowski was in his rightful role as striker.

Catalan circulation neuters Neapolitan block

The Catalans had controlled the first half hour of the fixture in Naples with their 3-2-5 system. They replicated the structure at the outset of this outing. Jules Koundé held back in the first row of the buildup with the two central defenders; Ilkay Gündogan was next to Christensen at the base of the midfield. João Cancelo advanced on the left flank to fix the width, pushing Raphinha inside with López, while Yamine Lamal was the right winger. They doused their opponents in dominance here.

10th minute: offensive sequence from Barcelona. Anguissa and Osimhen push out to press the central defenders, so Lobotka and Traorè jump to the two pivots behind them. Araújo punched a pass into the feet of the free man, López, and Mário Rui was ready to close him down. However, the left back is too far to create contact defensively, allowing the attacking midfielder to turn. Lewandowski drops off diagonally, away from Rrahmani, to become free, receives a pass and clips the ball deep to Yamal.

Napoli set high up the field in a 4-1-4-1 block. Midfielders reacted to the circulation by jumping from their positions and encroaching the territory. However, the guests struggled to put pressure on the ball. The endpoint for these sequences was often Yamal. Switches and high balls would force Rui to jockey between the winger and López, stressing the last line. Cancelo could also penetrate, looking inside with his right footedness off the left. The breakthrough was a textbook example of this construction.

Anguissa and Traorè jumped to the two pivots, Politano slid inside to block the lane to Raphinha, and Cubarsí cut outward to Cancelo. The left back punched a pass down the line so Raphinha could break the lines, and the winger drilled a cutback to the edge of the box. Lewandowski let the ball run along the floor, taking attention at the near post, and López locked onto the opportunity, slotting into the net.

Napoli navigate the storm

Kvaratskhelia and Rui connected on the left flank from the kickoff. The fullback freely funneled through the inside channel, but Araújo cleared the danger. Yamal picked up the second ball, nicking it away from Lobotka, and led Barcelona on a breakaway. Lewandowski swerved off to the right, and Raphinha rolled to the left. The latter was the next recipient of the ball, shifting inside di Lorenzo before firing at the goal. Though Alex Meret palmed away his effort, Cancelo put away the rebound.

It was characteristic of a sloppy phase in which Calzona’s men lost the ball too quickly. Osimhen pursued long balls that his teammates sent in behind the high line of the Catalans, but Cubarsí and Araújo caught him offside several times. As time elapsed, weaknesses ironed out with contributions of Hamed Traorè and Lobotka to manage the possession. But the preference for their play still leaned to the right of their offense. That zone was the location of the buildup to their goal in the 30th minute.

29th minute: offensive sequence from Napoli. Lobotka recovered possession and his teammates trigger pressure with their ball circulation. Yamal jumped to Juan Jesus, then Lobotka twists his body to face Rui, inviting López to block the wide passing lane, before pushing forward to dribble away from his marker. He releases to Traorè, who retains possession and switches to Rrahmani to calm the play.

Anguissa, di Lorenzo, and Matteo Politano rotated on the right flank. The fullback fed a pass in the back of Cancelo to pick out a run from Politano through the inside channel. Rrahmani roved forward and sent a shot into the corner of the net. Barcelona began to fall back more passively, losing their stamp of authority by half time. Could Calzona’s men complete the turnaround after the break?

Gündogan’s gateway to victory

Problems persisted for Barcelona. Lobotka continued to link from the base of the midfield, and the hosts had increasingly little relief. At the hour mark, Xavi turned to the bench. He put on Oriol Romeu for Christensen and took off López for Sergi Roberto. The two substitutes sat together in a double pivot. Gündogan then moved higher into the number ten position off the shoulder of Lewandowski.

López had been losing energy, and the looser marking of Lobotka required correction. Napoli did not flag in their faith, continuing to cause issues for their opponents. Yet, they could not grab a second strike. The closest they came was through a pair of substitutes. Jesper Lindstrøm came off the bench and connected with a cross from Mathías Olivera but failed to hit the target. It was this precision that Gündogan could provide in a higher position with his sense of timing at the other end of the field.

The comfort came in the 83rd minute. Roberto released a pass to Gündogan at the top of the penalty area. He pushed the ball back to his left, then through the lines into the path of Roberto. His teammate took a forward facing first touch to pull himself ahead of di Lorenzo and Rrahmani before squaring to Lewandowski. He tapped into the back of the net to restore the two goal advantage for the Catalans. All aspirations from the Neapolitans were up in flames, taking out light on their European campaign.


Barcelona are back in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in four years. Xavi will be pleased that the campaign continues to carry reason for his camp, who have not given up the ghost despite his impending fate. His management of the midfield in the second half helped the team to wrestle control of the contest from the Italians, but it is still a lackluster iteration of this outfit. How well they can mask these lapses of focus in future fights will determine their fate in the tournament.

Napoli now have suffered their first beating at the helm of their current manager. Calzona saw the two legs in distinct lights on reflection. He could not have asked for much more from his men in Naples just 48 hours after he arrived at the club. The three weeks under his leadership illustrated phases of fluidity, but a loss of composure or compactness at the start of this showing was costly. These players cannot allow their disappointment to linger longer if they wish to return to European competition.

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.
Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.

"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


Be the first to comment on this article

Leave a Reply

Go to TOP