When Barcelona arrive at the San Paolo for their first leg of the last 16 in the Champions League, it will represent Napoli’s first ever competitive match against the Blaugrana. And with nothing to lose against the reigning Spanish champions, Gennaro Gattuso will get the opportunity to take the focus away from a difficult campaign in Serie A.
The floodlights at the San Paolo will be lit again, and the intense atmosphere in Naples can spur the home team on, knowing that they have everything to play for and nothing to lose against a European giant coming to their home ground for the very first time. The Champions League odds will be against Napoli, but that’s how they like it.
Only three players have worn both shirts and only one player has made the move from one of the clubs to the other. Diego Maradona opened the door with his surprise arrival from Barcelona in 1984, but it has been shut ever since. Only Laurent Blanc and Pepe Reina have played for both sides, but none of them made a direct swap of jerseys.
As the encounter with Barcelona could be their last experience in the Champions League for a while - with the Partenopei currently ninth in the League - it could still provide a possibility for Gattuso to make the most of the big moment, help lift the spirit in and around Napoli and cement his name in the famous walls of the San Paolo after only two months in charge.
Gli Azzurri have never before reached the quarter-finals of the tournament and will be up against one of the most successful teams since the birth of the Champions League in 1992-93.
It was expected that Napoli would battle it out with Juventus for the title again this year, but in mid-February, they are sat two points behind qualifying even for the Europa League. The team have finally started to gel under the former Milan coach, but he has no coaching experience in the Champions League and received a free pass to the Round of 16 this campaign.
The last thing three-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti did at the San Paolo was to help the Azzurri qualify from Group E behind reigning champions Liverpool, and the 60-year-old gave them the chance to prepare for their third appearance in the knockout stages of the tournament.
The draw was not overly pleasant for the Partenopei, who have previously been sent out in the same round by the eventual winners Chelsea in 2011-12 and Real Madrid in 2016-17.
They only have five friendly matches to show for against Barcelona and Gattuso didn’t win any of his previous meetings with the former Real Betis coach Quique Setien when the Rossoneri played in the Europa League last campaign. Gattuso won five drew one and lost five in his 11 games in the Europa League with Milan and his best result in the competition was a place in the last 16 in 2017-18.
With an advantage from their first leg in the Coppa Italia against third-placed Inter and nothing to lose against Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League, the cup competitions might provide the needed platform to regain the confidence in Napoli and help Gattuso build a team that to fight for more special nights in Europe.