Barcelona have been installed as the heavy favourites to sweep Napoli aside when the teams meet in the last 16 of the Champions League. The Spanish champions have struggled in Europe over the past four seasons and they are desperate to end that record. They face a stern test of their mettle against Napoli, but they should be able to capitalise on the turmoil that has gripped the Italian club in recent months.
Napoli chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis issued the players with fines totalling more than €2.5 million in October after they refused to go on a training retreat in the wake of their 1-1 draw with Salzburg in the Champions League group stage. Instead, they decided to simply go home, and manager Carlo Ancelotti backed that stance. He was then sacked and De Laurentiis brought in Gennaro Gattuso to replace him.
The former AC Milan midfield has no great pedigree as a manager and he has inherited a total mess. Napoli went into the winter break with a record of just six wins from 17 games, leaving them 11 points off fourth place and 18 points behind the league leaders. Key players like Dries Mertens, Kalidou Koulibaly and José Callejon want out. Gattuso’s targets are modest – trying to get the club into the top four rather than challenging for the title – and they are not given much hope of beating Barca.
A Squad Full of World-Class Talent
The Champions League betting markets at Sportsbook Review make Barcelona the odds-on favourites to win their first-leg clash in Naples. Ernesto Valverde’s men are expected to qualify for the quarter-finals at Napoli’s expense without much trouble at all, and it is easy to see why. Barcelona are top of La Liga and they have won the title for the past two seasons. Napoli are eighth in Serie A and they have not won the title since 1990. La Liga is a stronger league than Serie A, so they should prevail in this clash.
The Barca squad is also teeming with world-class talent. Lionel Messi has just won a record sixth Balon d’Or title and many believe him to be the greatest footballer of all time. Luis Suarez is a fantastic striker and so is Antoine Griezmann. Together they have the ability to form a devastating attacking triumvirate, while Ousmane Dembele and Ansu Fati offer alternative options if Ernesto Valverde wants to try something different.
There is plenty of experience within the Barcelona team. Messi, Suarez, Sergio Busquets, and Gerard Pique are all Champions League winners and they form a strong spine to the team. They are not the all-conquering side that boasted Xavi and Andres Iniesta, but they remain arguably the most technically astute team on the planet, and Messi is often the game-changer.
Nothing is Guaranteed with Barcelona
Yet this will be no slam-dunk. Barca have struggled for consistency all season, as evidenced by their 2-2 draw against bottom club Espanyol after the winter break ended. Their 4-0 humbling at Anfield last season followed a 3-0 defeat against Roma in the previous campaign. They lost 3-0 to Juventus the season before that, and they were dumped out of the competition by Atletico in the previous campaign.
A lack of mobility in midfield was their greatest problem last season, as the aging trio of Busquets, Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic were totally overwhelmed by the pace and urgency of Liverpool in that semi-final defeat. They aimed to fix it by bringing in Dutch wunderkind Frenkie de Jong from Ajax, while Arthur also will also offer more energy when he returns from injury. But there are question marks over some key players, particularly Busquets, and nothing is guaranteed any more when it comes to Barca in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Napoli can play with the freedom of the underdogs. Let us not forget that this is a team that beat Champions League holders Liverpool at home and drew 1-1 with them at Anfield in the group stage. On paper, Koulibaly and Kostas Manolas looks like one of the best defensive pairings in Europe. Record signing Hirving Lozano is a quality player, while Mertens and Arkadiusz Milik can bang ion the goals and Lorenzo Insigne and Callejon offer quality from wide areas. If Gattuso can manage to galvanise this squad, Barcelona will have to be at their very best to topple Napoli.