Barça does not win even in the draws, as they had the toughest rival to start their participation in the Europa League, a consolation prize after being disengaged from the Champions League against Bayern and Benfica. The opponent, revealed by the exporter Andrés Palop (Seville), will be Naples, the most feared, the worst possible. All a bone and a challenge for the vaunted “new era” that Xavi announces, who will not even have the field factor in favor, since the first stake will be played at the Camp Nou (February 17) and the return at the Diego Armando stadium Maradona (February 24).
Spalletti, a former player of minor teams, soon rebelled as a different coach in Italy with his proposal of dapper football, of possession of breaking spaces and depth, someone who had the opposite at the time in an Italy that preferred the catenaccio. Passionate about his work to the point that he can call a footballer at midnight, he made a name for himself at Udinese and later at Roma (he won two Cups and one Italian Super Cup), also at Inter because he was the only one to settle after Mourinho’s departure in 2010 with the Champions League in his pocket (before Benítez, Leonardo, Gasperini, Ranieri, Stramaccioni, Mazzarri, Mancini, De Boer, Pioli and Vecchi). Dismissed in 2019, two years passed before he accepted a new adventure and that was Naples, which started the course like a shot but failed in the Europa League group against Spartak Moscow and has lost steam since it was injured his striker Osimhen – who in 14 duels added nine goals – due to a broken cheekbone after crashing spectacularly against Inter center-back Skriniar. Absence that moves the team a bit away from the leadership of Serie A, since it has a rickety streak (one win, two draws and three losses), now fourth to four points behind the neroazzurri, leaders in the table.
It is a team made and with this Naples, which usually plays a 4-3-3 with the Colombian Ospina under the sticks, flanked by the central Rrahmani and Koulibaly, an object of Barça desire in the last two seasons. Di Lorenzo and Mário Rui run along the lanes, perhaps their weak point. In the middle, he puts the Lobotka muscle, the criteria and the pass that deducts lines is added by Zielinski while the quality is provided by Fabián Ruiz, another footballer that Barça has tried without success in the past seasons. Without Osimhen, the skilful little Mertens takes the place of false nine, an area through which the speedy Hirving Lozano and the always dribbler Insigne are dropped, who plays with the goal between the eyebrows.
In case of overcoming the round, Barça would join the eight teams that are already waiting in the round of 16 – the draw will be held on February 25 – after finishing first in the group stage of the Europa League: West Ham, Spartak Moscow, Monaco, Olympique Lyon, Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Eintracht and Red Star. Thus, 18 years later, Barcelona returns to compete in the Europa League – then it was the UEFA Cup – on the way to the Sánchez Pizjuán final (May 18). It will not be easy because as an aperitif Naples is his turn. The worst of possible rivals.
The news caught the team on the way to Abu Dhabi, because this Tuesday they are playing the Maradona Cup against Boca Juniors, a match in which the coach will be able to give minutes to the players who participate less, also to young people who ask for passage in the first team now that a change of era is required (Guillem Jaime, Mattheus, Mika Mármol, Comas, Álvaro Sanz, Ilias, and Jutglà).
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.