In football, there are no prizes for nearly. For about an hour it looked as if Rino Gattuso’s tactical web might have tied up Barcelona and delivered a spectacular triumph. It certainly wound Arturo Vidal up enough to get himself sent off. But, when your efforts to secure a success by any means unravel, you are really left with nothing much to show for all your hard work.
There was something uncomfortable at times, to be honest, about watching one of Europe’s most entertaining sides of recent years pursue victory in the manner that they did. Yes, we could admire the dedication and spirit of sacrifice as well as a beautiful goal from Dries Mertens. But it still felt a bit like taking a fancy sports car out for a spin and being happy to go only as far as the corner shop.
Maybe that is the reality of where Napoli are right now, of course, in a disappointing season - but they looked like distant cousins of the team that made reigning champions Liverpool tremble earlier in the competition. A lot has changed since then, for sure, but it still appeared a little too submissive. Their coach certainly never showed this much respect to an opponent in his playing days. Giving Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon such a heavy dose of defensive duties weighed them down more than a pre-match portion of calzone.
To consider our prosecco glass half-full for a moment, at least the tie remains wide open and both Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets will miss the return leg. The boys from the San Paolo conceded to Barcelona’s only shot on target in the match and created more clear-cut chances of their own when they loosened the shackles after letting in an equaliser. The concern, though, is that needing to get a result in Spain they will have to show greater initiative and, in doing so, leave themselves open to their opponents a bit more.
That’s the trouble, of course, when you set your stall out to get a result by such defensive organisation and rapier-like counter-attacks. It could easily have delivered a 1-0 or 2-0 triumph and Gattuso would have looked like a genius. But, unfortunately, it did not and you are left with little consolation. There was guts, determination and team spirit, no doubt, but one lapse in concentration undid it all in an instant.
The proof of the tiramisu is, in the end, in its consumption. Napoli came close to getting a victory by lying in wait for their opponent, but ultimately it slipped through their grasp. Perhaps if Mertens had not limped off, it might have been different, and they might still progress despite the draw. But when Insigne said at full-time that they would have to risk a little more in order to make it to the quarter-finals, it had the crystal clear ring of truth. Surely it would have been easier to show a dash more ambition in front of your own fans than away at Camp Nou in three weeks’ time?
The harsh reality of sport is that there are no prizes for the right or wrong approach - they are only for winning or losing. Should Napoli make it through, their coach will have been vindicated and anyone who felt they could have taken the game to Barcelona a bit more will have to eat humble pie. Gattuso got near to perfection on Tuesday night, but he will have to get one step closer if he ultimately hopes to complete an amazing qualification at the expense of one of Europe’s elite.
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