Progress for Barcelona, and but the spectre of a primary trophyless season since 2008 in some way appears to loom bigger than ever. They made it previous Napoli and into the Champions League quarter-finals, however with the type of leaden, listless show that makes it nearly not possible to envisage them holding aloft the trophy in Lisbon on 23 August. Nearly.
That they’ve even a puncher’s probability is due largely to the person who was once more their salvation on this sport. Any group with Lionel Messi pointing in the best course can by no means fairly be counted out, and right here it was his unshakeable steadiness and insoluble will that introduced him inside three wins of the prize he craves greater than some other.
And but on this proof – a continuation of the anaemic, disjointed soccer that noticed them pipped to the La Liga title by Actual Madrid – Barcelona really feel farther from the head of the sport than they’ve carried out at any level since Messi’s arrival.
Quique Setien’s facet – though solely simply, if reviews from Catalonia are to be believed – nonetheless look painfully brief in key areas. Accidents have hit them exhausting, however tougher than they need to most likely be hitting a membership that has spent £767m on transfers within the final seven seasons. The shortage of something remotely approaching a urgent sport, and even the poise to dominate a midfield as they as soon as did so instinctively, goes past personnel. In some ways, this sport was the trendy Barcelona in microcosm: two set-piece targets, a slice of Messi brilliance, and never a lot else. It could be a blueprint, and ceaselessly an efficient one at that. Nevertheless it appears nothing like an id.
Has there been a Barcelona group for the reason that canine days of the Frank Rijkaard period that has regarded so inelegant in possession, so inert out of it, so content material to let opposition groups play? Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli are a spirited however on no account flawless unit, as their detached Serie A type signifies. But right here, at a abandoned Camp Nou, they had been handed the keys to the place, and with a deader eye for objective may even have snatched the tie outright.
To be truthful, most of their 18 photographs (to Barcelona’s seven) had been blocked, and most got here after Barcelona had already made the tie protected within the first 45 minutes.
That they did so was largely because of the luminosity of Messi and the caprice of VAR relatively than any profitable technique. Napoli really began the higher and, had Dries Mertens hit the goal inside 90 seconds relatively than slicing his shot towards the put up, we’d have been discussing a really totally different sport.
As an alternative, Barcelona restored common service after 10 minutes, Clément Lenglet heading house Ivan Rakitic’s nook having first shoved Diego Demme into Kalidou Koulibaly, taking them each out. With the sport 1 / 4 via, Messi tumbled to the turf below the dual challenges of Lorenzo Insigne and Mário Rui, and but in some way nonetheless managed to scramble to his toes.
With the ball, after all: that is Messi, in spite of everything, and as he regained his steadiness the ball in some way clung to him like a devoted canine. Along with his footing giving manner once more, he in some way managed to carry himself upright for simply lengthy sufficient to curve the ball previous David Ospina and into just about the one sq. of objective that the goalkeeper was unable to succeed in.
In a largely drab sport, this was the one actual second of grace: a reminder that for all of the dross round him, Messi can nonetheless usually be relied on to lift the tone.
It might have been nonetheless worse for Napoli, however Messi’s second objective – courtesy of a scrumptious cross by Frenkie de Jong – was chalked off by the VAR for a faint handball. Nonetheless, when Luiz Suárez slammed house a penalty on the stroke of half-time, after Koulibaly had clipped Messi’s calf, Napoli had been 3-Zero down, and seemingly out.
However within the final twitches of the primary half, Napoli pulled a objective again: Insigne changing from the spot after Rakitic had introduced down Mertens. If this was a reminder to Barcelona of their very own important fallibility, then it was one which went unheeded: Napoli dominated the second half with out ever fairly threatening to unlock the grandstand end. Remarkably, Setien waited till the 84th minute earlier than utilizing the primary of his 12 obtainable substitutes, by which era Hirving Lozano and Arkadiusz Milk had already come near narrowing the deficit.
Full time was greeted with the standard muted celebrations, the standard desultory handshakes and fist-bumps. A rumbling discontent has lengthy infused this membership, one which on its worst days appears immune even to victory. Laboured, sluggish and dangerously reliant on one man’s miracles: that is the Barcelona of 2020, and for all of the surgical procedure this nice membership requires, issues might but worsen earlier than they get higher.