Expectations were sky-high at Catalonia when much criticized, but successful Ernesto Valverde was replaced by former Las Palmas and Real Betis boss Quique Setién.
Setiéns primary job was to bring back the Barcelona-style attacking football and bring back the smiling faces of Leo Messi, Gerard Pique and co. While Valverde had won two Spanish La Liga titles, Barcelona failed to utilize their chances in the Champions League and couldn’t lift the trophy despite having arguably their best squad in the past decade. This season Barcelona were on top of La Liga and had punched their ticket to the UCL top 16, when Valverde was sacked and replaced by Setién. The grass, however, is not always greener.
Barcelona is still leading La Liga by two point margin to their arch-rivals Real Madrid. Their efforts have gotten somewhat better after the slow start under new guidance, but the team still seems to rise and fall with their superstar forward Leo Messi. In the Champions League 1st knockout round fixture away at Napoli, Italy, Messi did not have his best days – and Barcelona were miserable for most of the game.
Napoli has had notorious issues this season and they were stuck at mid-table for extended period of time and only recently having found their stride, capturing six wins in their last seven fixtures in all competitions. That being said, Napoli is not as strong a team they used to be and Barcelona headed to the game – despite their own issues – as heavy favorites. The approach taken by Setién was as expected: Barcelona controlled possession, but couldn’t break through at any point and didn’t put in much of an effort. Rather surprisingly, neither did Napoli, who were concentrated on protecting their own 16 and rarely pressed or gave challenge to their visitors.
Dries Mertens took the hosts 1-0 up on 30th minute after a dynamic and straightforward attack launched from the defensive zone. While everyone expected Barcelona to step up their game after going down, it took until the second half before the visitors got into the game. Still, they managed only one shot on goal all game, and that was the equalizer nicely put away by Antoine Griezmann from Nelson Semedo’s inch-perfect pass. A lackluster 1-1 draw might be a fine result for the visitors, but the performance left a lot to be hoped for.
Going to the second leg in Barcelona, the Spanish giants need to step up their offensive game in order to oust Napoli, who can be extremely dangerous especially on the counter-attack. Barcelona has been better at home than on the road, so they do have a definite edge heading to Camp Nou on 18th March.