After a turbulent start to the season at Napoli, ironically they couldn’t have picked a better moment to face Barcelona for the first time in history. The Blaugrana arrive at the San Paolo after a week of media speculation and controversy in and around the club. Their talisman Lionel Messi has, on top of it all, admitted that Barca aren’t playing well enough to win the Champions League.
The captain has been one of the protagonists during a weird week for the Catalans, as the sporting director Eric Abidal had pointed the finger towards the squad and more or less blamed them for getting Ernesto Valverde sacked from his position as head coach earlier this year.
In the meantime, President Josep Maria Bartomeu has also been accused of trying to make the players at the club look bad on social media, after rumours surfaced about the patron hiring a PR company to criticise some of the key members of the team at Barca in an effort to improve his own image.
The club has denied such allegations, but Messi still went public to defend himself and his teammates against the critique from their sporting director and former France international, leading to rumours about the possibility of a surprise move away form the club after this season. Due to a clause in the contract, he could end up leaving on a free transfer.
But the Argentine responded on the pitch last weekend, with four goals in a thumping 5-0 win against Eibar and it’s hard to know what to make of the situation at the Blaugrana right now.
Napoli are currently on a run of three wins in a row and are finally starting to gel under Gennaro Gattuso. The Partenopei have made sure the past is the past and kicked on from their own turbulent start to the season.
They will have to make the most of a rare the opportunity on Tuesday and bring a strong result from their first leg at home against one of the greats in Europe. This Barcelona team has weaknesses and the club’s current state might be an advantage for the Partenopei.
Both teams head to the last 16 with new coaches for the tie and none of them have been overly convincing up until now. Barca did reclaim the top spot in La Liga with the win against Eibar, their fourth on the bounce in the Spanish League, but they are still struggling to make the most of their season.
Athletic Bilbao handed them an exit from the Copa del Rey earlier this month and they have only kept three clean sheets in their last 11 League games. The struggles in defence might prove costly for Barca this term, as they are putting a lot of energy into the defensive phase and the inconsistent displays from their stars in midfield make the team a tad unpredictable.
There’s a feeling that Barcelona aren’t unbeatable anymore, so an organised and well-prepared side would be able to hurt the Blaugrana. The attacking duo Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele are also out with injury and the club had to apply for an emergency transfer, sparking even further controversy in the Spanish top tier when they brought in Martin Braithwaite from Leganes, who in turn didn’t get the chance to replace their leading goalscorer.
They arrive in Italy this week and when Messi has claimed that the team will not be able to win the competition if they keep putting in the same kind of performances and “silly mistakes”, Barcelona might have their guard down at the right time for Gattuso to make sure he starts his Champions League career in the best possible way.