After having three weeks to rest and process their turbulent end to the domestic campaign, Barcelona return to action in today’s Champions League last-16, second-leg tie at home to Napoli, with Quique Setien’s future on the line.
The tie is finely balanced at 1-1, with the winners earning a ticket to the “final eight” knockout tournament in Lisbon next week, UEFA’s solution to a competition disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even though the draw in Naples in February was not the worst result for Barca, their performance was slammed by captain Lionel Messi, who declared they would have no hope of winning their fifth European Cup if they continued to play as they did.
His damning assessment came home to roost when the season restarted in June after the coronavirus stoppage and Barca surrendered the Spanish La Liga title to Real Madrid, prompting the forward to launch a new tirade.
The Argentinian’s outburst was interpreted as a swipe against Setien, who had never managed a team in the Champions League until he succeeded Ernesto Valverde in January and ended the league campaign shorn of credit.
Even though club president Josep Maria Bartomeu gave the coach a vote of confidence ahead of the second leg, it is impossible to see him surviving an elimination by Napoli as it would mean Barca’s first trophyless season since 2008.
Besides, the Champions League has been an obsession for the team ever since their last triumph in 2015, so much so that Valverde was dismissed due to his inability to steer the team to European glory even though he led them to back-to-back league titles.
The Catalan giants will be without the suspended Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal, but have been boosted by the return of Frenkie de Jong, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann from injury.
“The first leg was a difficult game for us, they (Napoli) put a lot of men behind the ball and it was not our best game or result but I believe we can do better against them now,” Dutch midfielder de Jong told Barca’s website.
Napoli, meanwhile, are sweating on the fitness of forward Lorenzo Insigne after he hurt a thigh muscle in his team’s last match of Serie A, in which they came seventh, their worst domestic finish in the Italian league since 2009.