“This game represents the entire year,” a visibly angry Lionel Messi told LaLigaTV after losing to Osasuna last month. “We have been an erratic and weak team. I said some time ago that playing like this we had no chance of winning the Champions League, and it turns out we didn’t even have enough to win La Liga. We need to take a breather, let some air in, and clean our minds of all that has happened since December. Playing like this we will lose against Napoli; we have to start from zero in the Champions League.”
A man of few words, when Messi talks, people listen, and Barcelona have indeed had a poor start to 2020. They entered lockdown top of the league, but couldn’t keep pace with a ruthless Real Madrid upon football’s return and finished the season with their lowest points total since 2008, a season that led the club to turn to Pep Guardiola to inject life into a bloated heavyweight. There appears to be no such saviour this time around. Neither of Spain’s big two have enjoyed a vintage campaign, but Barça have been blighted by behind-the-scenes drama, including a managerial change, a public spat between sporting director Eric Abidal and captain Messi, and a bizarre transfer saga.
Arthur, a talented Brazilian midfielder, had been hit-and-miss in his two seasons in Catalonia, but at 23 has plenty of time to improve. Instead, the club have traded him to Juventus for Miralem Pjanic, an excellent playmaker in his own right, but seven years Arthur’s senior. New coach Quique Setién has admitted himself that he’s not used to dealing with a dressing room as senior and vaunted as the one found at Camp Nou, and has been unable to impose his style on a Barça adrift, without a clear identity. Their best players - Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi - are all past 30, and the recruits brought in to play with them haven’t met their standard.
Antoine Griezmann has looked a shadow of the player that starred for Atlético Madrid and the French national team, while Frenkie de Jong has been struggling with his fitness since the restart. Having said all this, one need not look further than Barça’s final-day 5-0 rout at Deportivo Alavés to understand the threat this group of players still carries. Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig are two youngsters who have really shone despite a collective drop-off in form, and play with a reckless abandon that belies their more jaded compañeros. Suárez still has that assassin’s touch and Messi is still the best player in the world, having led La Liga with 25 goals and 21 assists this season. Napoli should go into their tie with Barça unafraid of their illustrious opponents, but they would be foolish to discredit them.
Sevilla will be heading into their Europa League clash against Roma with a much more optimistic air. They’ve enjoyed a strong season, finishing in fourth place and thus qualifying for next season’s Champions League, level on points with Atléti in third and 10 points clear of Villarreal in fifth. They appointed Julen Lopetegui last close-season, a man intent on rebuilding his reputation following his unfortunate experience in the summer of 2018 with both the Spanish national team and Madrid. He worked with Monchi, their highly-rated former Roma director of football, to bring in several astute signings that have formed the spine of a capable team; Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos at centre-back, Fernando in defensive midfield, and Lucas Ocampos on the right wing.
Ocampos in particular has been a star, touted by many as La Liga’s signing of the season. The Argentine plays with confidence and aggression, recording 14 goals and three assists this campaign. He links up well with Jesús Navas, the veteran right-back who appeared in every single game this season and supplied seven assists; the right side is Sevilla’s principal attacking threat. Tied in the assist charts with Navas is Éver Banega, the combative and highly-skilled midfield playmaker that has enjoyed a purple patch of form since the restart. The 32-year-old will join Saudi Arabian side Al-Shabab at season’s end, and will be looking to finish his second spell with Sevilla on a high with a second Europa League medal. As a collective, the Andalusians will go into this final stretch with the wind in their sails; they haven’t lost since the restart, have won the competition a record five times, and will be intent on marking a successful year with a title and silverware.
Getafe, on the other hand, have been far from their best since La Liga football returned in June. They went into lockdown just a point behind Sevilla in third and level on points with Real Sociedad in fourth, but have lost five times since the restart, winning just once. They ended the campaign in eighth position, two points shy of Granada and a Europa League place, so will have to win the competition outright to ensure European participation next season. Coach José Bordalás gave his charges a full week off following their final day defeat at Levante, and will be hoping it gives his team the necessary injection of impetus to finish a disappointing season strongly.
In full flight, Getafe can be a difficult beast. One of the most idiosyncratic teams in Spanish football, they belie stereotype and operate with a flat 4-4-2, prioritising off-the-ball work, defensive solidity and an effective weaponization of set pieces, cultivating a reputation of being uncomfortable to play against and highly aggressive. This is no slight; we all have to use whatever we have in our arsenal, especially in a league as financially distorted as La Liga.
Their two strikers, Jaime Mata and Ángel Rodríguez, have both reached double figures this season (11 and 10 goals respectively), while wide-man Marc Cucurella, linked with Chelsea in recent weeks, leads the assists charts with five, closely followed by Damian Suarez and Jason, who have four apiece. Getafe supporters will be hoping the pre-lockdown edition of their team turns up against Internazionale; on their day, they can be a fearsome foe.
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