The Edge of Europe: Barça vs Napoli

I had meant to write a preview of the Espanyol match. I planned it out in my head, mentally prepared myself to write about Ivan de la Peña and the pain of losing that match, way back in 2009. I watched it with a bunch of friends and it turned from a joyous outing where we were going to smash our city rivals into a somber affair that made us contemplate the mortality not only of ourselves, but of the institutions we put some much faith in. Or something.

Then we pulled a draw out of a hat against that same club using a rather atypical Route 1 system and we find ourselves clinging desperately to a Champions League spot while we prepare for — deep breath — a Europa League match.

I’ll be honest: the Europa League is fine. It is a competition that should probably exist, but one that makes me feel like the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) does in the aftermath of March Madness: what’s the point? Perhaps it’s merely being so used to success at the highest levels that makes me look down upon the second tier European competition in a way that reminds me of my slight disdain of the Copa del Rey and the FIFA Nations League.

I like these tournaments in the abstract, especially the domestic cup, but the reality is that there’s too much football and the overburdening of the schedule contributes both to player injuries and fan exhaustion. Pedri played in 75 matches last year, over 6 competitions. The immense longevity of Xavi at the highest level lasted for 17 seasons, but involved just 48 matches per year on average (Barça appearances + senior national team appearances).1

We have too much football on our hands. Very few people dispute that, yet here we are, gearing up for another competition that is required by both our insatiable need for weekday entertainment as well as the club’s bottom line.

And therein lies the rub: Barcelona really do need this; as fans, we probably do too. It’s not that Barça (or its fans) deserve anything that Napoli fans don’t — perhaps it’s the opposite, even — it’s that Barça (and its fans) are in a somewhat dark place and this writer would like to see that change. Only one thing really turns frowns upside down in football: wins. It’s nice to watch progression, it’s nice to grow a squad, it’s nice to create space for growth; but is there enough patience in the world for these things when you have soared to the heights Barcelona has gone to in the last 2 decades?

And Napoli, who haven’t won a European trophy since 1989 will scoff a little at the idea that the Europa League doesn’t matter. European competition as a concept mattered plenty when we met them in the Round of 16 of the Champions League in 2019-20 (1-1; 3-1 to Barça — the managers were Gennaro Gattuso and Quique Setien) and, in a way, it matters just as much now because both teams need to win. Or, perhaps put better, they need to not lose.

It has been since 1989-90 that Napoli won the Scudetto; they won Coppa Italia in 2012, 2014, and 2020 as well as the last ever Intertoto cup in 2008; they could use more hardware. They have to look back at Diego Maradona to see their team’s heyday while it is with tears in our eyes that we look at back at last summer to see the departure of “the next Maradona” after he had changed not just the club, but football in general. Winning would be massive for Napoli because it would help them along in their season, where they sit just off the top in Serie A, just 2 points off of Milan’s 55 points after 25 matches. Inter sit in 2nd, on 54 with a game in hand and Juventus, the Serie A champs from from 2011-12 until last year, are in 4th with just 46 points from 25 matches.

Barça are, of course, in 4th, more firmly cemented there after Atleti dropped yet another clanger, this time on Wednesday (today as I’m writing this) at home to Levante, losing 0-1. This is a question not just of advancing in the Europa and getting the precious participation money, but also of fortifying a team that appears to be on the up. Momentum isn’t a thing, not really, but confidence is and Barça, while still facing technical and strategic questions, need confidence more than they need anything else. Losing would damage their chances in the league at a moment when they need to keep progressing under Xavi’s system, keep coalescing as a unit.

A win helps, but a loss hurts more.

But who are Napoli? They’re a team from Italy. Next question?

The depressing thing about life is that it never really gets less busy. As I lamented earlier, there’s too much football, but there’s also currently too much, period, at least for me. It makes watching Barcelona’s next opponents a simple impossibility because I have, perhaps not very wisely, prioritized spending time with my family in the evenings over watching replays of teams I don’t care to follow in general. And so, because of that, I turned to my new bestest friend in the whole wide world (because we just found out we went on the same study abroad program a year apart) and currently my archnemesis (that’s how sports work), writer and editor Kirsten Schlewitz for some insights.

For those of you who don’t know Kirsten, she’s a founder and editor of Unusual Efforts and is writing a book about the history of Napoli. That means she’s as knowledgeable about Napoli as I am not and is the perfect person to turn to for a few tidbits of information. She’s in the middle of writing a book, as I mentioned, so she fired off a few warning shots about how much smack she’s going to talk when Napoli pastes us and told me their danger players are Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, and Kalidou Koulibaly, the last having just returned from captaining Senegal to the African Cup of Nations title for the first time in the country’s history.

Back in January, Lorenzo Insigne signed a pre-contract with Toronto FC, which will see him depart Italy for the first time (loan stints early in his career at Cavese, Foggia, and Pescara kept him in-country) and Kirsten was at pains to point out that that may or may not be weighing on his performances. He’s a bit checked out, if you will, or perhaps just struggling a little bit to find form. It’s a classic case of maybe reading too much into it, or maybe not. He blew several gilt-edged chances against Inter at the weekend, which ended up 1-1 after Edin Dzeko smacked in an equalizer and Inter held on for the draw.

Napoli played a 4-2-3-1 (at least on paper), that (at least in the highlights) saw Insigne pushing up as almost a second forward next to Victor Osimhen. And that brings me to Kirsten’s major point about previewing Napoli: good luck. Osimhen apparently picked up a knock in training, but that’s sort of Napoli’s thing: list a player as questionable or doubtful and leak that he’s having problems when he’s fine or merely had a sore hamstring. Or maybe it’s true and he really isn’t fully fit.

Dries Mertens has scored 7 goals in Serie A this year to lead the team, but only 1 in Europe (and another in Coppa Italia to make 9 total). That’s far off the pace of Ciro Immobile’s 19 for Lazio, but it just speaks to Napoli’s goal scoring versatility: Osimhen has 4 goals in Europe and 9 overall (tied with Mertens) while Insigne, Elif Elmas, and Piotr Zieliński all have 6 goals. Fabián Ruiz and Chucky Lozano have each contributed 5.

Why am I listing a bunch of Napoli goalscoring stats? Because it compares very favorably against Barcelona’s version, which is just Memphis with 8, Ansu Fati and Luuk de Jong with 5, and Ronald Araujo with 3. No one else has more than 2 and in total, the squad has scored 46 goals in 32 matches. Napoli has scored 63 goals in…wait for it…32 matches.

Defensively, things look a bit different. Or, well, not for Barça, who have allowed 43 goals in 32 matches. Napoli? 31 goals allowed. It’s a start contrast and, by any real measure, Napoli walks this one, right? The only thing saving Barcelona is really that Napoli scored 15 and allowed 10 of their goals in the 6 Europa League group stage matches they played, allowing 2 or more goals 3 times and only maintaining 1 clean sheet. So there’s an outside chance Barça can go through if they can remember their shooting boots, a thing they have not had in Europe so far this year: 2 goals for, 9 goals allowed. Even if you knew that stat, it has to be shocking.

This is European competition from the outside. Barcelona arriving on a second tier stage and realizing that they’re underdogs, even here. This is the the moment we live in. Losing is an option only insofar as we can imagine it and consider it likely, Xavi cannot take this as a building block. The walls are up, the windows are in, and as the storm bears down on us, we have to believe we’ve put the roof on. There is no more time left to this season, no more nails to put in. We’ve got to perform.

And yet, we’ll lose this match.

Not necessarily because Napoli is that much better than we are, but because of that dastardly thing: confidence. We’ve got none of it and, as a guy who sits at his computer and thinks about these things a lot, we probably shouldn’t have any confidence. We had to save ourselves from Espanyol and while that can happen in a derby, it is happening routinely against everyone.

It’s not that we need to have more balls, go in harder, etc. No, it’s not that. That’s foolishness that should be dismissed without a second thought. It’s that we’re failing the obvious moments in front of goal and that’s hurting us during the next chance. We hoofed balls into the box against Espanyol on repeat, with Adama clearly capable of getting to the end line and flicking a ball across almost at will, but he kept overcooking the passes, sending them to the far sideline. Or there wasn’t anyone there to pass to. Or they didn’t make the right run. Or they mishit. Or they dithered. Or. Or. Or. We could have (and should have) put that match to bed in the first half. And we didn’t. Because we don’t. I, perhaps naively, thought we had turned a corner after Pedri put the ball in the back of the net so quickly. Here were, humming along. Here we were, a motor with the proper oil levels, the throttle opening up just right. And then we overheated and we sputtered and we shat ourselves and we got red cards and we got cooked on defense.

And Luuk de Jong came on saved us. Because that’s the level we’re at now.2 We can build beyond that, but the question is whether or not we will. Securing 4th place in the league is the most important thing, but to get there, we have to go through Napoli first. And going through Napoli, well, that’s a tough ask for us right now.

Match prediction: 1-2 Napoli.

1 In his 22-year career, Xavi made 1027 appearances. In his two-and-a-half-year career, Pedri has made 108 appearances. If he somehow maintains his trajectory, Pedri will make his 1027th appearance when he is 28. This almost assuredly won’t happen because of injuries, but the trajectory alone should give us pause.

2 And Luuk de Jong is not bad. He is a good player who has had a good career, but he is not a Champions League level striker right now, not at 31, not in this squad.