It felt a bit like one of those late, long-distance buzzer shots in basketball. For as long as the ball is in the air - in this case for the months between the two ties - there was always hope for Napoli. But it ultimately crashed down short of the hoop on a hot summer night in Barcelona.
Trying to deconstruct how things unfolded - in the first half in particular - took the investigative skills of an expert detective. Rino Gattuso’s side started well enough, and even hit the woodwork, but then things started to get complicated. A goal was allowed to stand that might have been ruled out, while another was disallowed that could well have stood. There was a penalty given at both ends and a moment of ridiculous brilliance from - who else? - Lionel Messi. Decipher that if you will, Sherlock.
What we could say for sure was that the Partenopei lost their way a bit too easily after they slipped a goal behind. Yes, it did look like Clement Lenglet pushed an opponent out of the way to grab the advantage, but that was not enough to justify such a loss of belief. They were still right in the tie, but the way they seemed to topple into disarray for a spell was disappointing. Having built a career on determination in the face of any adversity, their coach will have been particularly irked. There is no shame in losing ties like this, but you want to come out of them with no regrets.
In truth, it would have taken a perfect performance to see off a side like the Blaugrana and this was far from that. The defence was too distracted, the passing was just not slick enough and too many players were below their best. Jose Callejon - a great servant for so long - was so anonymous in this tie that it almost felt like he had left the club already. He was not alone in that regard.
There were moments when we got glimpses of what might have been, but they were all too fleeting. Not even the calamitous contributions of Cuneyt Cakir could really offer any real credibility to claims that the better team had not progressed. The home side was always holding their visitors at least at arm’s length.
It would have taken more than Napoli had to offer to rattle Quique Setien’s side. Perhaps we could clutch at the straw that if that opening goal had been disallowed, events might have unfolded a little differently. However, I think that, deep down, we all know that if we replayed this game 100 times, the Serie A side would only have progressed on a handful of occasions.
It all left Italy, once again, as a peripheral player in the latter stages of the Champions League. After Juve’s supine submission to Lyon, there will only be Atalanta to fly the flag for Calcio in the Final Eight. From what we have seen so far this lengthy season, that is probably a fair outcome in truth.
It underlines, once again, just how the Italian game remains at some distance from the upper reaches of the very best on the continent. The Bianconeri have been, for the best part of a decade, far and away the strongest side on the domestic front and yet they have found Europe’s top trophy a step too far. Indeed, they seem to have drifted further away from being a contender despite the marquee signing of Cristiano Ronaldo.
The rest, if we are honest, look more like Europa League material - which might yet give Inter some joy this summer. In the hope that the boys from Bergamo can prove me wrong, the Champions League appears more and more the preserve of a handful of clubs with Serie A looking in from the outside. There is the odd flicker of hope - which needs to be built upon - but the mountain to climb remains a significant one. If Calcio wants to reclaim the European crown it once owned, we may yet have a few years to wait before it hits that particular basket.
Giancarlo Rinaldi is the author of a number of books about Italian football. You can find out more about them here.
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