Without a doubt, Barcelona were the overwhelming favourites against Napoli. Neither Napoli had a Lionel Messi in their side nor do they have superstars like Antoine Griezmann, Sergio Busquets or young talents like Ansu Fati. They only had the grit and spirit of Diego Maradona, who was and still is the God of Naples. And until the final whistle, Napoli kept the fighting spirit going and one could feel the presence of Maradona at Stadio San Paolo. Gattuso’s Napoli has stopped the mighty Barcelona in the knockout stage of Champions league, which is surely a great feat.

Even though Napoli enjoys more of the possession (53.35%) than their opponents in the Italian Serie A, but in the match against Barcelona, Gattuso decided to focus more on compactness – defend hard, block the channels and counterattack with speed whenever Barcelona’s backline weakens.

They applied a 4-4-2 formation for Barcelona’s 3-5-2, who started building from the back. Gattuso concentrated on the mid-pitch-block and kept the passing lanes so narrow that Quique Setien’s men could enjoy their possession-based football, but could hardly penetrate as the number of shots on goal remained unnoticed.

The narrowness in the center of the park forced Barcelona’s possession to become lethargic, devoid of movement and creativity upfront. The possession-based football of Barcelona might have triggered nostalgia among the fans, but without proper penetration, such so-called beautiful football are of no use.

In the meantime, a festive atmosphere showed up at Naples  –  Junior Firpo gave a silly ball away at the back and Piotr Zielinski picked out Mertens on the edge of the penalty area, where he took a touch and whipped a sumptuous finish past Marc-Andre ter Stegen to put the hosts ahead.

Napoli doubled their advantage before the interval, but Kostas Manolas flashed a close-range effort past the post – tiki-taka or whatever they say had no answer but could learn what penetration is all about.

Setien was forced to change his plans in the second-half after an unproductive first outing.

Barca started with both full-backs pushing forward for the first time and quicker passing around the box, which made them more inventive and dangerous. After 10 minutes they equalized with a masterful pass from Busquets to find Nelson Semedo who gave Griezmann a tap-in, and they equalized.

Napoli decided to advance on the counter and they did it more often to put chills down the spine of Barcelona backline. Marc-André ter Stegen made two unbelievable saves to stop Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon.

Barcelona pressed hard in the remaining 20 minutes, but in the final few, Napoli tested them again. They survived but the red card of Arturo Vidal was a telling blow to their plans – Vidal was sent off for a hard foul then a stupid head-butt on Mario Rui, and Barca had to play the final few minutes with just 10 men.

Vidal is the first Barcelona player to be sent off in the Champions League in the knockout stages since April 2011, when Jose Manuel Pinto was dismissed against Real Madrid.

It was a night where Lionel Messi failed to create the spark which he did a few days back against Eibar. In another big game at the Champions League, Messi failed to cut a satisfactory figure. He was a lonely figure most of the times and even though he moved to create chances, Napoli’s defence was so alert and solid that it was tough for Messi to breach. It is never easy to breach the Napoli wall, but someone called Cristiano Ronaldo did it several times though.

The game ended 1-1. Since winning their first-ever game in the Champions League knockout stages (3-1 vs Chelsea in 2011-12), Napoli have failed to win any of their last four games outside of the group stage – One draw and three defeats, with three of those coming against Spanish opponents.  Meanwhile, Barcelona have only won one of their previous nine away games in the Champions League knockout stages –three draws and five defeats, with that lone victory coming against Manchester United in April 2019.

It was a hard-fought battle where Gattuso’s men would relish the moral victory. If they can maintain such solidity at Camp Nou, it won’t be tough for them to conquer Barcelona.

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