Dries Mertens matched the all-time Napoli goal-scoring record, but Antoine Griezmann tapped in the Barcelona equaliser and Arturo Vidal saw red in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16.
Kalidou Koulibaly and Fernando Llorente were out injured for this Champions League Round of 16 first leg tie, with Arkadiusz Milik and Elseid Hysaj not 100 per cent fit, while David Ospina was chosen in goal. Barcelona missed Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba, so Samuel Umtiti got the nod rather than Clement Lenglet, with Arturo Vidal in the trident preferred to Ansu Fati.
This was the first time these teams had ever met in official competition and Lionel Messi’s debut at the Stadio San Paolo, the home of Diego Armando Maradona. Both coaches were making their Champions League bows, Gennaro Gattuso and Quique Setien having replaced fired Carlo Ancelotti and Ernesto Valverde after the group phase.
Inevitably, the Blaugrana – playing in bright yellow – kept the majority of possession at a slow tempo with Napoli trying to break at pace. Twice the hosts tested Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, only for the offside flag to be up anyway, while Messi ran towards the box and was cleanly dispossessed by Kostas Manolas.
Napoli took the lead with an historic goal, as it was the 121st for Dries Mertens in the Napoli jersey, matching Marek Hamsik’s all-time club record.
Piotr Zielinski deserves much of the credit, as he won two tackles down the right and set up Mertens on the edge of the box, who took a touch and curled a scorcher into the far top corner.
It was so nearly 2-0 for Napoli on 42 minutes, as after a free kick, Jose Callejon pulled back at the far post for Manolas to prod inches wide from close range.
Sergio Busquets was booked at the dawn of the second half for a very high foot on Mertens and will be suspended for the second leg. That tackle right on the Belgian’s ankle took him out of the game, so Arkadiusz Milik had to come on.
Barcelona equalised with their first genuine scoring opportunity. Mario Rui allowed Nelson Semedo to run behind him on to a Busquets through ball and rolled it across for Antoine Griezmann to fire in undisturbed, all of it avoiding the offside trap.
Insigne squirmed between two defenders at the by-line only for Marc-Andre Ter Stegen to parry his angled drive at the near post, then Milik’s inspired pass sent Callejon clear, only for him to take a touch first, allowing Ter Stegen to come flying out to block with his body.
Messi was about to complete a give-and-go with Vidal, but Ospina was alert and the Argentine went crashing into him, earning a yellow card.
Barcelona were fortunate Insigne was flagged offside, because Callejon was dragged down in the penalty area by Junior Firpo on his cross.
Substitute Matteo Politano’s shot was charged down, while Messi tried to dribble through the entire Napoli defence, eventually robbed by Nikola Maksimovic.
Insigne attempted a trademark right-foot curler after Zielinski’s headed assist, but it was the wrong decision from a promising position.
Artur Vidal let the tension get to him with an entirely avoidable red card in the final minute. The referee was already walking towards him with a yellow card for his foul on Mario Rui when the Chilean went forehead to forehead with his opponent in ugly fashion. This meant both players were booked, so Vidal got two yellow cards at the same time for a red. He too will be suspended for the second leg.
Gerard Pique could be at risk too, as he limped off in stoppages after landing heavily on his ankle.
Napoli 1-1 Barcelona
Mertens 30 (N), Griezmann 58 (B)
Napoli: Ospina; Di Lorenzo, Manolas, Maksimovic, Mario Rui; Fabian Ruiz, Demme (Allan 79), Zielinski; Callejon (Politano 73), Mertens (Milik 54), Insigne
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique (Lenglet 93), Umtiti, Firpo; Rakitic (Arthur 56), Busquets, De Jong; Messi, Griezmann (Fati 87), Vidal
Ref: Brych (GER)
Sent off: Vidal 89 (B)